Warhol vs. Lichtenstein
The Pop Art Movement did NOT start in the United States, as many believe. It also did not begin with Andy Warhol, who is featured in our WWW Series. Andy was NOT the originator of what became known as “Pop Art” in the US, but he quickly became its icon.
The Pop Art movement began in the UK – in the early 1950’s and did not have a public landfall in the US until around 1960. The first application of the term “Pop Art” occurred during discussions among artists who called themselves the Independent Group, which was part of the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, begun around 1952-53.
The origins of pop art in North America and Great Britain developed differently. In the United States, it marked a return to hard-edged composition and representational art as a response by artists using impersonal, mundane reality, irony, and parody, to defuse the personal symbolism and “painterly looseness” of Abstract Expressionism. Yes, in the United States, Pop Art was a movement away from Pollock’s zooming popularity – the man in the US who made it obvious that abstract expressionism was a legitimate means of creating art.
I suspect the anti-movement was because true abstract painting is extremely difficult. Anyone can throw paint at a canvas (or a wall, or a tree, or whatever) and call it “abstract art” but for it to truly “work” is very difficult. It is achieving a balance between “being apparently carefree” and that wholistic outcome – meaning, it appears complete within itself. I will go so far as to say, you either have the talent and disposition or you don’t, because it is very difficult to ‘teach’ an artist to be an abstract expressionistic painter. Am I saying that Pop Art was led by a group of frustrated and failed abstract expressionistic artists? I will let history answer that, but you know my answer.
Who copied whom?
Roy Lichtenstein was probably the first well-known pop artist. His comic book art was becoming popular and was selling. Andy Warhol, who became the icon of pop art, was – at the time – also doing comic strip art. There is a bit of fascinating confusion about Lichtenstein and Warhol…who did what first. The Who copied whom? sort of debate. It was probably Lichtenstein who copied Andy’s work, seen in a set of retail store windows in NYC. There is a fascinating article on this tiny slice of time where Warhol struggled to find his niche. (If interested here is the best – and fascinating – narration, with actual quotes by those where were there: https://warholstars.org/warhol1/11roylichtenstein.html.)
Moving on, Andy Warhol received the notion of Campbell Soup art by Muriel Latow, a NYC interior designer and artist. In an after-dinner conversation, where Andy expressed his frustration of not finding his artistic identity, she gave him the idea, and there is proof of this because Warhol wrote Muriel a check for $50 for the idea, dated November 23, 1961. (You can impress people with this little slice of art history at your next art exhibition cocktail party!)
To skip ahead, Warhol, held his first solo exhibition in Los Angeles in July 1962 at Irving Blum’s Ferus Gallery, where he showed 32 paintings of Campell’s soup cans, one for every flavor.
After Muriel’s suggestion, and in a flash of inspiration, Andy bought all 32 varieties of Campbell Soup cans from a local supermarket. Many think he photographed those soup cans but, in the beginning, he hand painted every single one of the 32! He traced projections of each can onto canvas, tightly painting within the outlines to resemble the appearance of the original offset lithograph labels. Instead of the dripping paint in his previous ads and comics, here Warhol sought the precision of mechanical reproduction. At this time, he received a return studio visit from Irving Blum of Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, who was expecting to see comic-strip paintings, and was pleasantly surprised by the new soup can art. [Cheese Soup was the first one…again more cocktail party premium material.] Blum immediately offered the artist a show that summer. Expanding his subject, Andy decided to paint past Cheese Soup and did one of each of the thirty-two varieties of Campbell’s soups. Blum exhibited the cans on shelves running the length of his gallery. All 32.
The exhibition caused a mild sensation in Los Angeles. The more daring members of the youthful art and film community were intrigued by their novelty. Most people, however, treated them with indifference or outright disdain. A nearby art dealer parodied the show by displaying a stack of soup cans, advertising that you could get them cheaper in his gallery. Blum had sold five of the paintings before he recognized that the group functioned best as a single work of art. He bought back the works already purchased, including one from Dennis Hopper. [More cocktail party hum.] Blum offered to buy the set from Warhol in instalments for the modest sum of $3,000. Andy, however, needing instant cash, instead settled right then for a lesser amount for the whole hand-painted set.
So, Andy Warhol sold the infamous set of 32 paintings of Campbell Soup varieties to Blum for $1,000 in 1962. In 1996, when the Museum of Modern Art acquired it, the set was valued at $15 million. Today, even if you could purchase that set, $100,000,000 would not touch it.
Andy Warhol’s original hand-painted set of 32 Campbell’s Soup containers – 1962.
Lichtenstein in Newsweek.
Pop Art crunched commercialism and art into a single entity and created a movement that shifted art in many ways to a more commercial enterprise. Although Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein hand-painted their works in the beginning, it soon migrated into mass production of silk screen prints, and along with a handwritten series denotation, e.g., 32/50, and the original signature of the artist, was enough to skyrocket the art’s value. Was this new? No, not at all. Yes, it was new in the sense of the money commanded for a “signed and numbered copy” but most believe it actually started as “legitimate art” with Winslow Homer in the mid-1800s.
Winslow Homer – Poppa of “limited edition prints?
Homer started his career as an apprentice to a lithographer in Boston, Massachusetts. After his apprenticeship, he worked as a freelance artist in Boston and New York. From the beginning, publishers had difficulty getting enough artist-engravers for their new papers. Winslow Homer decided to switch his craft from lithography to wood engraving. In 1857, he sold a picture to Ballou’s, the first of the major American illustrated newspapers. This was followed by 264 more illustrations sold to periodicals over the next twenty-five years.
These illustrations by Homer are original graphic art in every sense of the word, just as lithography by Picasso is considered original art. The term “limited edition graphic” means simply that the artist has produced a specified number of identical prints of a lithograph or engraving. Numbering and autographing raised the value considerably.
By 1870, Homer’s illustrations had achieved great beauty and impact. With his excellent New England illustrations, he reached his zenith around 1874. To see and understand clearly the total development of Winslow Homer as an artist, his progress through the pages of Harper’s Weekly is not to be missed and ought to form the cornerstone of any collection of his prints.
But it was 75 years later that Andy Warhol took “mechanically produced” prints to the sales point of original art. The flow seemed endless, and the field unlimited, from Mao to Marilyn, Cows to Campbells, and Flowers to Bananas. Prolific is hardly the word.