Pop Art and Consumer Culture: American Super Market. Christin J. Mamiya. Austin: U of Texas P, 1992. 215 + x pages. $17.95 paper; $35 cloth.
Christin Mamiya's new book is an engaging and thorough examination of the process by which pop art rose to prominence in the 1960s, first as the cultural appropriation of the American landscape, and then, thorough a series of astute financial arrangements with dealers and corporate collectors, as a force in the artistic marketplace. Mamiya traces the rise of Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, Johns, Oldenburg, Wesselmann and other well-known pop artists from their beginnings through their eventual canonization as lions of the art world.
As Mamiya notes, when pop artist arrived on the scene, it was dismissed by most critics as a trivial and passing fad, but even at this point, it was selling well, although at very low prices by today's standards. Pop seemed simultaneously too simple and too simple minded to be worthy of serious consideration, the reasoning went, and the hold that abstract expressionism retained on the art world had not yet evaporated.
One of the problems contemporary critics had with pop art was that "anyone" could make a Warhol painting; all one needed was a photograph, a photo silk-screen and a blank, pre-stretched canvas. It took minutes to knock out an early Marilyn or Elvis painting, where was the craft? The craft, of course, was in the selection and manipulation of the image, and this is where the newly emerging pop artists excelled. Seemingly banal, the work of pop artists celebrated the replaceable, disposable aspects of 1960s consumer culture with a wide-eyed innocence and insouciance that was simultaneously outrageous and refreshing.
When Warhol made his first films, he simply set up the camera and let it grind away for 35 minutes at a clip (the length of a 1200-ft. spool of 16mm film), which infuriated the critics even more. And behind all this critical hostility, one can detect a note of fear on the part of the critics who disliked pop art so intensely. Pop, despite its shimmering, superficial surface, was threatening. It exposed the mundanity of everyday iconography in a way that was disturbing, because it took the everyday and made it into something that was aesthetically mediated and certified. Pop displaced Jackson Pollock and his compatriots because It was direct, immediate, brutally simplistic. Once you "got" pop, as Warhol noted, nothing looked the same way again.
Mamiya, as the title suggests, links pop inextricably to the consumer culture that informed the fabric of American society in the 1960s, and she is absolutely correct in this assessment. …