The Pop Revolution
The People who radically transformed the Art World
Alice Goldfarb Marquis
London: Tate Publishing, 2013*
Paperback. x+222 p. ISBN 978-1849761123. £14.99
Reviewed by Andrew Calcutt
University of East London
Superb Account, Shame about the Storyline
The late Alice Goldfarb Marquis (she died in 2009, when this book was close to completion) provides a powerful account – both compellingly readable and rigorously authoritative – of the coming of Pop Art and its subsequent, transformative impact.
If this account is cut short by the author’s untimely death – there was to have been a concluding chapter on the trickle-down effect of Pop after Warhol – in another sense the abrupt ending is something of a blessing. For if Pop Art had been but a protracted episode in the history of art, it would surely have been the sharp intake of fresh air which it first purported to be. Instead, now that sixty years on, its position of influence in popular culture remains as unchallenged as it is increasingly unwarranted, the potentially bracing role of Pop Art has itself been transformed into a stale stand-off in which art and its public have come to expect relatively little of each other. Not least because of the timing of her own passing, however, this pas de deux of diminished expectations is mercifully absent from Goldfarb Marquis’ presentation.
She begins with art dealer Leo Castelli and his turn towards Jasper Johns, firstly in the form of Johns’s Green Target (a painting that does what it says in the title), which signalled the earliest onset of that further turn away from the Abstract Expressionist style which had continued to dominate American art during the first half of the 1950s.
Throughout the book, Goldfarb Marquis maintains a high level of interest in the dealers, agents and latterly museum curators who together made Pop into a going concern. To her credit, she manages to tell their stories without allowing the quest for money and status to become the overriding question of the book; instead her handling of both aesthetic concerns and social factors is lively enough to give the economic storylines a run for their money.
Her assembly of Pop Art’s protagonists looks to have been accomplished with great care and diligence. There is a hardly a quote that does not also appear in an end note. The result is a compilation of sources which is nothing short of comprehensive, even if its presentation does not conform to the most widely-used protocols (Harvard, Chicago, etc.) for academic referencing of such material. In any case the exhaustive compilation of her source material allows for a splendidly detailed reconstruction of this crucial period in American cultural history.
Goldfarb Marquis is especially insightful when addressing the contribution made by Andy Warhol. Particularly his knack for rendering existing images of celebrities into something even more iconic than they really were; on closer examination, ‘really’ cannot be the appropriate term here, since thanks in large part to Warhol, this kind of icono-mising – turning ourselves and others into would-be icons – has since become the social-media-staple of how we really live and who we really are. Thus Goldfarb Marquis not only offers insight into Warhol’s working methods but manages to suggest how – in his life, his work and in the promotional activity associated with both of these – he made the process of distillation and simplification into a fixture, if not the overriding fixation, of our icon-ridden times.
Hers is not a damning criticism of Pop Art; instead Goldfarb Marquis depicts what it has been good at. Thus even without finger-pointing, as a result of her painstaking work we are much better equipped to understand why this is not good enough.
*First edition: The Pop! Revolution : How an Unlikely Concatenation of Artists, Aficionados, Businessmen, Collectors, Critics, Curators, Dealers, and Hangers-On Radically Transformed the Art World. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts Publications, 2010.
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