Day 170: Pop Goes The Art

originally published June 18, 2012

Pop art is a wonderful thing. Because of its nature, it can be a field so wide and vague that acceptance within its community can appear arbitrary to the outside observer.

I would be one such observer.

Don’t get me wrong – I can appreciate Warhol’s alternate perceptions of Campbell’s Tomato Soup, and Lichtenstein’s bedotted comic-panel-ish art is fantastic. But sometimes pop art’s conceptual nature overshadows its aesthetic appeal. At least for me. But then I’ve always felt that the finest of fine art can only be made from bacon.

Luckily, Ed Ruscha’s debut book, Twentysix Gasoline Stations, is a work of pop art that one can appreciate beyond whatever statement it makes on societal decay, or “minimalist notions of repetitive sequence and seriality”. It just looks cool.

Ruscha lived in California, and would regularly drive home to Oklahoma to visit his family. He came up with the concept after checking out some non-commercial street-vendor books in Europe: snap a bunch of pictures of gas stations along his next journey home.

And that’s it. That’s the book.

He took the pictures along Route 66, and they mostly appear in order, west-to-east. These twenty-six photos have been interpreted as being subtextually correlated to the 14 Stations of the Cross, an homage to Walker Evans’ Depression-era photos, and concluding with a Duchampian pun. Art critics have had lengthy discussions on the symbolism of this work… which is seriously nothing more than twenty-six photos of gas stations.

Oh, and if you have an original signed copy of this book? That’s worth $35k.

This may appear to you, the uninitiated, as a bunch of numbers. Oh, you philistine, you knuckle-dragging, drool-splattered neophyte. That is a public piece of pop art by Robert Indiana, conveniently located at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The color and positioning of the numbers may seem random to a commoner, but they aren’t. Each color represents a stage of man: ‘1’ is red and green to represent birth (which, as we all know, is a very red and green experience). ‘2’ is blue and green to represent infancy. ‘6’ is red and green to represent the prime of life, which I guess is kind of birth-like since they use the same colors. ‘9’ is yellow and black, meaning “warning” and also “The Pittsburgh Steelers”. ‘0’ is grey to represent death.

I can’t claim to speak for much of the population of Indianapolis (except to lament with them how the Colts really stunk last year), but I’m guessing almost everyone who walks by this sculpture observes it as a collection of numbers. They’re lovely numbers no doubt, with pleasing, bulbous little serifs, but no one is saying, “That ‘5’ is the exact same shade of blue and white as the pre-prime of life.”

This is Eight Elvises. You can count them if you don’t believe me. A silkscreen painting by Andy Warhol, this one is pretty cool. I can see hanging this on my wall – sure, my Elvis fandom is more Costelloish than Presleyesque, but it’s still a nice piece of art.

It’s also a goddamn expensive piece of art. The original sold to a private collector in 2009 for 100 million dollars. Just think about that for a moment. That could pay my cable and internet bill for a million months. That could build 8000 schools in Africa. That could provide over 3.7 million meals for homeless people in this country. Here in Edmonton, that would mean our homeless population would get over 12,000 free meals apiece, almost eleven years’ worth.

That’s world-changing money, and it was spent so that one guy (or possibly lady, it doesn’t say) can own the original of something you can pick up at allposters.com for $9.99, with eleven different sizes to choose from.

This blue beast is simply known as the King Kong Statue. It was commissioned in 1972, and created by artist Nicholas Munro to be shown at the Bull Ring, a major commercial centre in Birmingham. It stood proudly at 18 feet, towering over passing consumers… for six months.

After that, the City of Birmingham decided that this mammoth piece of public pop art wasn’t fitting in with the area, so they sold it to a used car dealer, who slapped it up over his lot and changed his company name to the King Kong Car Company. After a few years of shame there, it was sold again and displayed at a market in Edinburgh. It was repainted several times, once in tartan, once in hot pink, before being transferred once again to an auction house in Penrith. There it remains, laying on its back in a parking lot, no longer a piece of pop art. Now it’s just something to freak people out on Google Maps.

One of the most recognizable pieces of pop art comes also from the mind and hands of the numbers guy, Robert Indiana. The Love Sculpture was originally designed as a Christmas card for the Museum of Modern Art in 1964. Maybe there is some significance to the coloring (red and blue doesn’t show up as a ‘stage of man’ in that numbers sculpture, so it’s anyone’s guess), but the message for this one is pretty clear.

The original sculpture is on display at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and has been since 1970. It has since been reproduced all over the world, hopefully with Mr. Indiana reaping at least a pocketful of profits with each incarnation. There’s one on Sixth Avenue in New York City, another at JFK Plaza in Philadelphia. All together there are 17 versions of the statue in America, with at least as many around the world. The statue has been translated into Hebrew and Italian. For some reason, it has become a widely-adopted symbol of the skateboarding community.

The best examples of pop art can stand on their own – like any form of art, there has to be some kind of visceral appeal for it to be good.

But there should be some meaning as well. Simply regurgitating recognizable characters and symbols because you can may work well for stop-motion, Robot Chicken-ish comedy, but it isn’t necessarily art.

Unless it’s made out of bacon, of course.

Categories: art

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