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The Pop Art Conundrum

April 9, 2014

I have always associated Pop Art with the critique of our consumer culture. Using bright colors and an impersonal, flat form to draw the audience in, the artists of this movement employed commercial techniques to meet the new high demand for art. Yet, the many prominent Pop Art artists featured in this new exhibit located in the Smithsonian American Art Museum add a new and deeper dimension to the style and goals of this artistic movement. They introduce a heightened focus on human nature and conflict, not only through the subject of the artwork but also in the viewer’s emotional response.

When entering the second room of the collection, I became entranced by the soft yet captivating gaze of Marilyn Monroe, whose eyes seemed to almost follow you around the room. This depiction of the celebrity, done very shortly after her death, exemplifies a much more somber nature than that of Warhol’s famous colorful Marilyn Monroe prints. Warhol employs many muted, dark colors in this profile of Monroe. Her soft, golden hair, gray face and mahogany eyelids in contrast with her bubbly, larger than life persona contradict the characteristics she embodied as a famous actress. Her emotionless, somber glance further enhances the gloomy air to this piece. However, the florescent, bright pink on her lips and earrings contrast and intensify the subdued colors. This random, out of place pop of color gives the print a more ominous tone. The radiant pink hints at her celebrity status.  Yet the muted colors of her profile depicts Monroe as much more human and demonstrates the complexity of her identity. The careful use of color humanizes Monroe, reminding the viewer that she was much more than simply a celebrity used for commercial purposes.

As a continued to explore the room, a simple black and white photo caught my eye. It seemed out of place in comparison to the slew of brightly colored pieces lining the walls. I decided to take a closer look. The photo, taken in Birmingham Alabama en 1964, depicts two dogs attacking a black man. Warhol dramatically reduces the details of the figures. He also increases the contrast between the black and white. The white, glowing shirts of the policemen encircle the darkness of the black man’s clothes and skin color, heightening the sense of chaos, tension and hostility of the moment. The lack of details and strong contrast between light and dark intensify the emotions present in the snapshot of this important, historical moment.

In this exhibit, Andy Warhol’s pieces as well as the works by Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Mel Ramos and other famous artists attempt to redefine the assumption of what fine art is and how it can be used. Through the exaggerated use of color and mass production of prints, these artists challenge our perception of art, causing us to question what truly makes art meaningful and powerful. For these artists, it was often the visual and emotional appeal and pull of the work that made their pieces so captivating.

Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2nd floor South

8th and F Streets, N.W.

March 21, 2014 – August 31, 2014

Photo: Smithsonian American Art Museum

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