Women and Welty

By GREG COOK  |  February 10, 2011

Revising the history of Pop Art prompts the question what exactly is Pop Art? In her Pop Art (1966), one of the first American books to survey the movement, Lucy Lippard wrote, "Hard-core Pop Art is essentially a product of America's long-finned, big-breasted, one-born-every-minute society. . . . They [the artists] all employ more or less hard-edge, commercial techniques and colors to convey their unmistakably popular, representational image."

For Lippard, there were only five "hard-core Pop artists in New York" — Warhol, Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselmann, James Rosenquist, and Claes Oldenburg — and "a few more on the West Coast and in England." Sachs correctly argues that women were excluded from Pop by tastemakers like Lippard because society refused to see women as capable artists and because they sidelined their own art to support boyfriends or husbands. It wasn't till the '70s that feminism really began to combat this.

But what Sachs overlooks is that the "empathetic social commentary" and greater handcraft he finds in Pop women contributed to their exclusion, because Pop was being defined as guys who, as he notes, "tried to remove substance, submerging themselves in manufactured, slick surfaces." If hardcore Pop had to be apolitical, unsubstantial, and not look handcrafted, is it a surprise that women like Rosler were left out?

In 1966, Marjorie Strider was one acceptably Pop female artist outside Lippard's New York Big Five, because her "bathing beauties" were "rendered in a crude commercial idiom like that of Lichtenstein." Marisol, Lippard wrote, made "sophisticated and theatrical folk art . . . But it has little to do with Pop Art, aside from its deadpan approach and touches of humor." Lippard described Drexler's paintings as having the "immediacy and color but not the technique associated with Pop. Like Idelle Weber's mute urban groups moving across checkerboard grounds . . . they are motivated by different attitudes." It seems these women made the, uh, mistake of making the graphic language of Pop culture their own, rather than copying existing imagery, as the New York guys did.

There's no one as catchy and compelling as Warhol here — but very few artists are. Strider gives Lichtenstein and Wesselmann a run for their money. If she'd had the financial and institutional backing those men enjoyed, who knows what would have happened.

So how does Yayoi Kusama's trippy 1967 film Self-Obliteration fit in here? She rides a horse that she's covered with polka dots, then stands in a lake and paints red dots into the water. She covers a tree with dots, then a man lying on a rock, then the rock, then her own leg. It ends with a light show and an orgy in which naked men and women dotted with paint buck atop each other. Kusama's obsessive dotting, which feels both joyous and like a paranoid contagion, gives the film a catchy look as well as emotional urgency. She offers no Pop references or crisp mechanical manner. You could characterize her works as Op Art happenings and installations. For Lippard, Kasuma also fell into what she called the "extra-Pop area."

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Related: Slideshow: 'Seductive Subversion' at Tufts, '24/7' at DeCordova, Slideshow: Andy Goldsworthy and Ursula von Rydingsvard at the DeCordova, Living history, More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Rachel Perry Welty, Tufts university art gallery, Art,  More more >
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