Legends of pop art at the Thyssen

New exhibition brings famous works by Warhol, Lichtenstein and Hockney to Madrid

A visitor next to Warhol’s ‘Big Torn Campbell's Soup Can.’
A visitor next to Warhol’s ‘Big Torn Campbell's Soup Can.’SAMUEL SÁNCHEZ

“Pop Art is: popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and Big Business.” This perfect definition of the best-known art movement of all time was made by Richard Hamilton, one of its forerunners and the first person to introduce the term in a work of his.

The work in question was his well-known 1956 collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? It depicts a bodybuilder holding a giant Tootsie Roll Pop, surrounded by objects meant to guarantee a life of consumer happiness: a TV set, a vacuum cleaner, a tape recorder and so on.

A 1992 version of this seminal artwork opens the new exhibition at the Thyssen Foundation, Mitos del pop (Legends of pop). Curated by Paloma Alarcó, the show ties in with the museum collection’s most recently dated works, and attempts to deconstruct the movement through a hundred or so works on loan from dozens of national and international art centers.

All the great names are there: Warhol, Lichtenstein, Hockney, Richter and Claes Oldenburg, together with the Spanish artists who participated in the movement, including Eduardo Arroyo, Equipo Crónica, Equipo Realidad and Darío Villalba.

Spanish pop artists were politically committed, there was no superficiality to their work” Paloma Alarcó, curator

The comprehensive exhibition covers collages, advertising, comic books, soup cans, Coca-Cola cans, stamps, portraits of legends (Marilyn, Jackie, Mao, Marlon Brando, The Beatles), self-portraits (Andy Warhol, David Hockney), landscapes, still lifes, historical depictions, urban eroticism and art about art.

Instead of following a chronological order, Paloma Alarcó chose to divide the work into subject matter. The show recreates a movement whose roots are in England but which grew and fully developed in the United States.

“It is a kind of art that seeks to be understood by everyone,” she explains. “It is neither elitist nor twisted. It turns its back on anything that smells of abstraction. It is a groundbreaking art that encompasses the entire history of painting although it draws inspiration from advertising, film and comics.”

This is also the story of a period in which the mass media flooded citizens with brand names and products whose names cropped up over and over again. These commercials were adopted by the artists themselves, from the famous targets by Jasper Johns and Peter Blake to the brand-name products available in supermarkets.

'Red Seesaw' by Öyvind Fahlström (1968-69).
'Red Seesaw' by Öyvind Fahlström (1968-69).SAMUEL SÁNCHEZ

“It is a type of work that remains very much alive, as demonstrated by the prices that these artists fetch at auctions and by the numerous exhibitions and books that keep getting made,” says Alarcó, “Their relevance is global.”

Despite this continuing interest in pop art, there has not been such an important exhibition since 1992.

“No essential work is missing,” says Alarcó. “If a very specific piece was not brought over, then something similar was. If I had to point to a gap, it would be to say that I would have liked to see Claes Oldenburg better represented. There are only two works of his, and his role was very important.”

Is it possible at this point in time to discover new facets of pop art? Alarcó believes so. “I would like to put an end to the claims that this is a banal movement full of opportunists. It was not so. Practically no artist from the era remained free from its pull, even if some later went down different paths. It was an intellectually powerful movement, and esthetically it was very attractive.”

Despite continuing interest in pop art, there has not been such an important exhibition since 1992

As for the way that Spanish artists reinterpreted pop art, the curator sums it up with one word: intensity.

“In the US it was about sweetening a way of life, about affording an attractive vision of reality, even if we see a tremendous sadness in the eyes of the women that Roy Lichtenstein paints in his comic strips. Spanish pop artists were very politically committed, there was no superficiality to their work. El abrazo (The hug, 1976), by Juan Genovés or Caín y Abel (Cain and Abel, 1967), by Equipo Realidad were loaded with political denunciation.”

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