Pop since 1949: Lawrence Alloway

By Whiteley, Nigel | Artforum International, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Pop since 1949: Lawrence Alloway


Whiteley, Nigel, Artforum International


Marked by possibility and potentiality, complexity and contradiction, Lawrence Alloway's writing could range from the monster movie Tarantula to the aesthetics of Roger Fry--all within the space of a paragraph. Alloway began to formulate his philosophy during the meetings of the Independent Group in London in the early to mid-'50s, and by the time the celebrated "This Is Tomorrow" exhibition opened in 1956, he was already thinking of art as part of a "communications network" that also included movies, advertising, graphics, product design, and fashion, rather than as a separate and supposedly "higher" entity distinguished by aesthetic timelessness and disinterested experience. His first fully worked-through theory of culture, which appeared in 1957, established a position from which he never departed: the incorporation of popular and fine art into a "general field of communication." This was a radical outlook that signaled a shift from modernist to postmodernist thought.

In "Pop Since 1949," Alloway reacts to Pop art not as a novel phenomenon, whether threatening or promising, but as the latest manifestation of an altered cultural situation. In this essay, he describes three phases of Pop art and charts the changing meaning of the term, also providing an understanding that transcends the movement itself and offers ways of thinking about art and its relationship to the mass media and popular culture.

Alloway's working definition of Pop "refers ... to the use of popular-art sources by fine artists" (1)--a definition that largely accords with what we now label the Pop-art movement of the '60s. Credited as the first critic to use the term "pop art," in an article of 1958, (2) he at that time intended the phrase to reference Americanized mass-media popular culture, such as Hollywood movies and science fiction. In the 1962 piece presented here, he dates the origins of Pop art proper, its first phase, to 1949 and Francis Bacon.

The second phase of Pop art, which Alloway dated from around 1957 to 1960, was a not entirely successful attempt to align abstract painting and popular culture. Abstraction had been linked to the absolute and transcendent or to the spirit of industrial production and the factuality of materials. But by the late '50s, critics began to draw parallels between the scale of Abstract Expressionist paintings and other forms of expansionist Americana, such as Cinemascope, while the colors used by artists like Richard Smith came with the underpinning of an adman's theories of sales appeal. (The use of menthol-cigarette-pack green, for example, connected abstraction to "the sensuous world of leisure.")

The third phase had started only in 1961 and was ongoing when Alloway delivered "Pop Since 1949," as a radio broadcast. This period had been associated with a generation of young painters in England such as David Hockney, Peter Phillips, and Derek Boshier. Almost simultaneously, the new work of Rosenquist, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Wesselmann, and Indiana was being codified as Pop art in the United States. Alloway likened the new British work to the art of the first phase but thought it more catholic in its sources and less rigorous, both conceptually and visually.

By 1966, when Alloway revised the essay for inclusion in Lucy Lippard's Pop Art, he had got over his disappointments and seemed happy to be associated with the movement. He had moved to the United States in 1961 and been appointed curator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1962, so his perspective on Pop transcended the parochialism of the British scene. He immediately began to realize the significance of Pop art as a movement and planned the pioneering "Six Painters and the Object" show at the Guggenheim in 1963. Alloway had carved a niche in the critical interpretation of Pop art but deserves to live on in the broader debate around fine art and popular culture.

A key point in "Pop Since 1949"--and one with continuing repercussions--is Alloway's attitude toward the popular culture of the mid-'50s. …

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