Just what was it that made British Pop so different, so appealing? So asks the Yale Center for British Art, alluding to a piece on display in its concurrent retrospective on British Pop artist Richard Hamilton. These two shows, when taken together, form an impressive challenge to the assumption that America was the epicenter of postwar pop production. The exceptional catalogue of works on display, including complete portfolios of David Hockney’s “A Rake’s Progress” (1963) and Eduardo Paolozzi’s “As is When” (1965), is ample reason to postpone our informal studies of ’80s video game aesthetics and head on over to Yale’s favorite Louis Kahn building. Though we may try to deny it, the British Art Center can still cut a rug like the best of them.
“Pop Art” was a term coined by art critic Lawrence Alloway to denote the array of mass-produced artworks that emerged in London in the 1950s. Central to this movement was the Independent Group, a subsidiary of the Institute for Contemporary Arts. Formed in 1952 by several artists, including John McHale, Robert Smithson, Eduardo Paolozzi and Alloway himself, the group assembled due to a shared interest in the mechanics and products of American popular culture. By 1955, however, Alloway’s term “Pop Art” had caught fire, causing many Independent Group artists, including Hockney and Paolozzi, to flee into the fields lest they be pigeonholed.
These errants were never able to fully loose their shackles, thank goodness. Though they shivered at being thought of simply as “Pop artists,” their conceptual concerns and media decisions largely remained the same. Paolozzi, like Richard Hamilton, developed a working relationship with screenprinter Chris Prater in the 1950s, which came to fruition in such stunning portfolios as “Moonstrips Empire News” (1967) and “As is When” (1965), a series of screenprints that explore the life and work of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Paolozzi described “As is When” as a “combined autobiography,” an opportunity to explore things he felt resonated in both his life and Wittgenstein’s. Each man was an outsider of sorts: Paolozzi, an Italian born and raised in Edinburgh; Wittgenstein, an Austrian exiled from Vienna during World War II on account of his Jewish ancestry. And each sought, under the presupposition that language represents and structures the world, to construct exceptional forms of communication.
Paolozzi’s visual language in “As is When” involved making screenprints from detailed collages, which in themselves mixed varieties of images with text excerpted from Wittgenstein’s work and biography. The individual pieces that compose “As is When” thus range greatly based on the incorporated text, with the biographical excerpts yielding predominantly illustrative images, the philosophical excerpts predominantly abstract ones.
“V: Wittgenstein the Soldier,” for example, illustrates Wittgenstein’s career in the Austrian army. Four soldiers supplement the biography, three locked in a marching line and the fourth suspended in mid-air. What energizes the image — and gives it a life separate from its subservience to the text — is the manner of visual construction. Each soldier’s rigid outline is filled with collages of machine parts. This rendering layers an implication of militaristic automatization atop the biographical text.
This piece is doubly complicated by the necessity to view it in relation to the other pieces comprising “As is When.” For example, “I: Artificial Sun” problematizes the easy reading of the machine imagery in “V: Wittgenstein the Soldier.” In this piece, the visual content is both eclectic and abundant, collaged as intricate matrices of stripes, dots and other textures. Certain sections leap out in dynamic color oppositions — those olives and yellow ochres and purples that will mire interior design for a decade only to be reborn in our epoch as “ugly chic.” Yet many of these colors and stripes derive from actual images of machines and everyday objects.
And this is precisely Paolozzi’s point. Within his visual language — as is true for many Pop artists — machine parts and quotidian objects become a starting-point for an aestheticization of functionality. Paolozzi describes his process as “a method of taking the world apart and reassembling it in order that one understands.” “Understanding,” it seems, is in part contingent upon the integration of disparate cultural products into a new, unitary aesthetic product. This is heady idealism if nothing else, but perhaps we can allow ourselves to be at least somewhat idealistic — to not scrap all products of postindustrial society but redress them as tools for construction.
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