Pop Divas

When you think of Pop Art, the art movement that dominated the late 1950s and early 1960s in America, you almost automatically cast up the wigged head of Andy Warhol. A few other names might rise up from memory— Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, or even the British artist Peter Blake—but even those names have in common one thing—they’re all men. Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists 1958-1968 at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia wants you to learn the names of the “pop divas,” the women who worked in the same culture-driven, irony-laced language as Warhol and others but were never heard, until now.

“’Pop Art’ is operational nomenclature,” Sid Sachs writes in the catalog to the exhibition, “there were no Pop salons or manifestos.” A loosely associated group to begin with, the Pop Artists made no effort to unify their ideas or purposes. Most of their ideas were culled mainly from mainstream culture, spun slightly to give that askew vision that we call art. Their purposes were even harder to nail down, since they seemed almost purposeless. Perhaps their only purpose was to celebrate a moment in American history after the wars and before the assassinations, new wars, and culture clashes of the 1960s. In that celebration hid away a tacit acceptance of the nuclear family circa Eisenhower era, when Dad was the breadwinner and Mom had dinner on the table when he came marching home. The women of the Pop Art movement found themselves caught up in that same silencing Leave it to Beaver mentality at the same time they were trying to create their art from that repressive culture.

Marisol’s John Wayne (pictured), a 1963 mixed media sculpture, shows the Duke astride a comically small horse. The subversion of these seductresses comes from this knocking of male figures off of their high horses. In many ways, these works are more interesting than those of the mainstream male Pop Artists. Sure, Warhol may have captured some aspect of the spirit of Marilyn Monroe or Jackie Kennedy in his pop portraits, but the works in this show present the viewpoint of women not standing in the limelight, which even they usually shared with the men on their arm.

The concept of this show fascinates me mainly because we don’t think of Pop Art as masculine. The brawny Abstract Expressionists that came right before the Pop Artists fit the masculine stereotype much better. Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning still languish in the shadows of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, their mates in art and life. Grace Hartigan once resorted to billing herself as “George Hartigan” at an exhibition, a tactic she regretted for the rest of her life. The anti-feminism of that movement seems clear to us today, but the anti-feminism of the Pop years works more quietly and, for that reason, gives us more reason to pull back the curtain of the past and learn the names of these women artists now.

[Image: John Wayne by Marisol, 1963, mixed media, 104 x 96 x 15 inches. Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, Art © Marisol Escobar/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.]

[Many thanks to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia for providing me with the image above from Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists 1958-1968, which runs from January 22 through March 15, 2010.]

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