Magazine article Artforum International

"International Pop" and "The World Goes Pop": Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, and Tate Modern, London

Magazine article Artforum International

"International Pop" and "The World Goes Pop": Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, and Tate Modern, London

Article excerpt

"International Pop" and "The World Goes Pop"

Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, and Tate Modern, London

POP "WAS THE BIRTH OF THE NOW": So claim curators Darsie Alexander and Bartholomew Ryan in the catalogue for their sprawling and ambitious show "International Pop" at the Walker Art Center, thus positioning the movement as a progenitor of our so-called post-Internet condition. Indeed, the curators write, Pop artists "were modeling behaviors that then seemed radical, but now are second nature: the image world as an extension of the self, the individual curating information via status feed, the rise of social media that is one of the most profound changes of our time."

What is striking about this genealogy of the present is that Alexander and Ryan keep a self-conscious distance, in their account of historical Pop art, from the term global--a word that also arguably describes "one of the most profound changes of our time." They make a subtle distinction between a previous model of the world and that of the present, claiming that the show is "a project about internationalism that could only have been made in today's global era." In other words, "International Pop" was an account of the recent past in which individual national art histories (such as those of the United States, England, Brazil, Japan, Argentina, Hungary, and Italy) were set alongside transnational aesthetic or formal dynamics that indicated an emerging "global style": The mobility of pictures, for instance, was addressed in a section called "The Image Travels," while in "Distribution & Domesticity" we saw artworks that confront the postwar explosion of commodities in everyday life. The exhibition thus tracked the nation-state giving way to multinational networks, markets, and cultures--to globalization--as a framework for understanding and encountering world art.

I dwell on Alexander and Ryan's positioning of "International Pop" because it crystallizes precisely what is at stake in the organization of international or global exhibitions. International denotes, if only ideally, a confederation of equal yet distinct traditions; global indicates, on the contrary, either the erasure of geographic difference (in the so-called McDonaldization of the world) or the emergence of neo-imperial hierarchies that establish boundaries between rich and poor, or between cheap labor and metropolitan finance, that do not conform to the borders of national territories. "International Pop" grappled with these problems by allowing visitors to encounter distinctive national histories side by side, while simultaneously demonstrating how these genealogies merge into something that might be called global--in terms of both aesthetic convergences and geopolitical divergences (as in the Latin American ambivalence toward American Pop as both a compelling aesthetic movement and a cipher of the imperialist American policies to which that region was subjected).

By contrast, "The World Goes Pop" at Tate Modern, organized by Jessica Morgan and Flavia Frigeri, collapses distinct historical genealogies into an entrepot of works drawn from diverse places but grouped together in loose and often indistinguishable thematic galleries ("Pop Politics," for instance, doesn't look terribly different to me from "Pop Folk"). Bright walls of deeply saturated color punctuate the installation, creating environments so raucously cheerful that it is hard to see the art as anything but the high-culture version of the Disney attraction "It's a Small World." Take the "Pop Bodies" section, largely devoted to feminist art, which is displayed in a room whose walls are painted Pepto-Bismol pink, a crude, essentializing allusion to "femininity." In "The World Goes Pop," the global is submerged in a kind of shrill hilarity where politics can be just as fun as sex.

I think the crux of the theoretical difference between these two exhibitions may be found in the organizers' opposing choices in handling British and American Pop, whose outsize influence in the international art world may accurately be termed "imperialist. …

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