THE RETURN
OF
SUBJECT MATTER: POP ART
AND
SUPERREALISM
Another way artists reacted to the seriousness of abstract expressionism was through the humor and crass
materialism of pop art. Pop artists rejected the formalism of abstract styles and returned to art with
recognizable subject matter—in fact, subject matter so common that most people would never have found
it a worthy subject of art at all. In spite of the opposition between abstract expressionism and pop art, two
of the most interesting artists of the later twentieth century, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns,
demonstrated the connections between the two styles. Both artists often used a painterly technique—
Rauschenberg’s technique is more freely expressive, while John’s brushwork is more like a textured stucco
surface. Both artists, however, used subject matter that was not just recognizable; it was so common as to
be considered banal.
Rauschenberg’s pieces, which he called combines, cross the line between painting and sculpture, combining
photographs and objects like blankets or buttons (or a stuffed eagle in Canyon), with painting and drawing.
This type of work, constructed from found objects with additions by the artist, is more generally called an
assemblage. Jasper Johns often chose subjects from the real world that were naturally flat, like maps, flags,
targets, or pages of typed letters. He then reproduced the subjects (creating an illusion, but a flat one) in
paint, often using the archaic technique of encaustic, which uses pigment suspended in melted wax. To his
flat surface, Johns might add actual three-dimensional forms, as he did in his Target with Four Faces. In
another example, Johns made a replica of two beer cans in bronze, and painted it to look just like two beer
cans. This kind of elevation of the mundane is typical of pop art.
The artist whose life and work best stands for pop art is Andy Warhol. Warhol was particularly interested
in the reproduced image and what mass reproduction does to our own perception of other people. Many
of Warhol’s paintings and prints show pop icons like Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley, repeating them over
and over in the garish colors of commercial printing. A silkscreen print (the same method used to print on
T-shirts) of Marilyn Monroe may seem to only further commercialize an already commercialized image, but
when Warhol’s subject is an automobile accident, an electric chair, or the Kennedy assassination, the effect
is chilling.
A style closely related to pop, although not always drawing its imagery from commercial products, is photo-
realism. Like pop artists, the photo-realists made representational paintings, but what they represented
were photographs with all their peculiarities of focus, color (or lack of color in black-and-white
photography), and grain. Photo-realist paintings like those by Chuck Close typically show their subjects on
a huge scale, which allows the viewer to realize the distortions that photography brings to the image.
Because the photograph itself is representing reality, the paintings cause us to think about what is really
real. Photo-realism is sometimes referred to by the more general term, superrealism. This category would
also include artists like Duane Hanson, who reproduced the exact appearance of ordinary people (like
tourists) in life-sized, full-color fiberglass sculptures that he often set in places where they blended with real
people. Hanson’s work gives a funny and often unsettling response to those who believe art should imitate
life.
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