Pop Art is more than just the multi-colored Marilyns and cheerful Campbell's cans seen in recent displays like “Regarding Warhol” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Lichtenstein survey at the National Gallery—the genre has a dark side too. The talented curators at the Whitney Museum of American Art brings out the genre's moody undertones in the exhibition “Sinister Pop,” on display now through the end of March.
The Whitney Museum unleashes its vast collection of Pop Art in a poignant exhibition put together by in-house curators Donna de Salvo and Scott Rothkopf. The pair carefully included one or two familiar names in each gallery—Lichtenstein, Wesselman, etc—yet steered clear of the traditionally sunny Pop Art sentiment of the early-1960s. Instead, the focus was placed on the darker anti-corporate sentiment of the late-1960s and early-1970s.
Photography fits heavily into the mix, with black-and-white photos by the likes of Ed Ruscha, Weegee, William Eggleston and Joel Meyerowitz, in which American landscapes take on a menacing quality. Seen through the lens of Meyerowitz, a Catskills apartment resembles a film-noir set. Chicago artists: Karl Wirsum, Jim Nutt and Ed Paschke focus on the Pop Art body with grueling undertones, while a wall relief by Lee Bontecou and a menacing cartoonish drawing by Lee Lozano echo Lichtenstein’s cheerful Sunday comics like an evil twin.
Entering the third gallery, viewers are privy to familiar works by Warhol, Pop Art’s household name, with his “Nine Jackies” and a grim-looking “Marilyn.” “Madonna and the Child” a visceral painting by Allan D’Arcangelo, along with Paul Thek’s oversized artificial bone sculpture, which gruesomely oozes marrow, can't help but engage the gallery-goer’s attention.
Early works by Lichtenstein, such as the black-and-white “Bathroom,” as well as Oldenburg’s well-known ashtray, paint a grim picture of Pop domesticity; as does Eggleston’s photograph of a freezer interior, filled with beef pies, and vanilla ice milk—a decidedly negative commentary on the American diet.
One Artspan artist whose work would fit well in the current exhibition, is Peter J. Ketchum, whose style, while difficult to categorize, has been described by critics as Retropop, Grandpop and Folkpop Art. The widely-shown Brooklyn-based artist, who cites Warhol, Lichtenstein and David Hockney among his greatest influences, works primarily with mixed-media, and focuses on sinister themes decorated with colorfully gritty overtones. “All my work is basically about prejudice and the easy hatred in society.” says Ketchum, “It is derived from actual images and words found in printed ephemera -- snapshots, ads, postcards, comics, coloring books etc. from 1867 to the 1950’s.”
Such found images and words clearly prompted strong artistic responses. A prime example is the mixed media work, “A Nice Nazi Couple,” which features a vintage photo of a smiling German couple, the man dressed in full SS regalia. The text “How could they have known?” rests in canary yellow on the bottom frame. Had the text not clued us into their background, the work could have easily be interpreted as a cozy family portrait, yet this is exactly the type of irony that Ketchum has mastered. “Every word in the mixed-media work appeared in print somewhere. I invented none of it.” says Ketchum. While the artist's work does take inspiration from the Pop Art movement, as the New York Times has said, “attempts to pigeonhole Ketchum's work as Pop, folk, cartoon, mixed media, collage, anthropomorphic, or merely strange tend to fall short of the mark."
In one room of “Sinister Pop” at the Whitney, Warhol’s race riots and electric chair are featured in screen prints that pale in comparison to their painted counterparts, yet still remain effective. Ketchum has also taken inspiration from Warhol's electric chair in a unique way: his shocking work “Sizzle! in a Laura Ashley Room” which features a particularly graphic image of a man strapped into the device, in front of a cheery floral background, was commissioned by a client who requested a painting to go in her Laura Ashley decorated room—a challenge that Ketchum, with his penchant for irony, simply couldn't turn down.
Back at the Whitney, the next room focuses on Pop Art's military presence, with Vietnam-era pictures dominated by Peter Saul’s explosive “Saigon.” The work neighbors Warhol’s orange-and-green Richard M. Nixon and Jim Dine’s Johnson and Mao, both lathered in rouge and lipstick.
In the solemn final gallery, Ruscha’s nocturnal photographs of gas stations, D'Arcangelo's barred-off highway landscapes and George Segal’s plaster-cast sculptural tableau “Bus Stop” evoke gloomy thoughts about the automotive landscape.
Next door in the Kaufman Astoria Studios Film and Video Galleries, the companion show “Dark and Deadpan: Pop in TV and the Movies” provides a somewhat more upbeat look at the movement. Visitors can view footage of the moon landing, a short film of Warhol eating a hamburger, and the trailer for Godard’s “Breathless.”
Both exhibitions as well as Ketchum's work, afford a different view of the Pop Art movement, making a visit to the Whitney for this sinister showcase well worth it.
On display through March 31, 2013