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19 February 2012

Art book of the month: February

Back by popular demand, ittsss the 'Art book of the month' review:


February's choice, 'The First Pop Age' by Hal Foster
Without realising it (when I first picked this book up) this was to be the second book I was going to read by Hal Foster within the last couple months. What drew me to reading this book wasn't, as I mentioned, because I recognised the author (and had I known, I might not have actually picked it up at all because the last book I read of his, 'The Return of the Real' was pretty heavy going) but because I've always been a fan of Pop Art/'the Pop Artists', despite my own practice not necessarily having too much of an obvious link to the Pop Art style or use of 'popular imagery'. I would like to argue that in fact, tools are pretty popular, in the sense that we all claim to use them, but that's probably best left for another day. So, whilst my own work isn't directly about mechanically produced imagery, collage, design and celebrity icons, I have always had an unashamed love for the stylistic, impact and sometimes heroic 'in your face' brashness to pop art making it one of my all time favourite periods in art history. Second to that Futurism and thirdly maybe Surrealism. I like Pop because out of it the everyday object wasn't just 'art' in the Dada or Duchampian 'ready-made' sort-of-sense but the everyday object in art could now also be cool. A toaster, a golf ball, a Brillo box could be attractive, desirable and more; that's 60's American consumerism for you! Whilst this celebration in the aesthetic and design of everyday images, advertising and mass-production printing techniques is actually quite exciting for the arts I suppose my problem with Pop Art was that alone it was almost too concerned with appearances and that actually what I liked about the 'toaster, the golf ball and the Brillo box' were that they had meaning and significance that was also outside the superficiality of what they 'look like'. You're probably aware that when you look at specific artists within Pop Art that it is in fact, actually a lot more complicated than even that, and I'm not going to hazard going into it in any more depth in what is supposed to be a book review, but it does set the scene for some of the things that this book discusses and why I was interested in it in the first place.

As I mentioned earlier, the previous book I'd read by Foster, 'The Return of the Real' was useful as there was some good stuff on indexical mark making and representation but overall I actually found the whole thing pretty challenging in its use of terminology in places and as a result it lost my attention. I'm pleased to say that 'The First Pop Age' is different and reads a lot more like individual essays, which are divided into five chapters; each one on a different artist; Richard Hamilton, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter and Ed Ruscha. Sadly no female Pop artists in this book (as in fact, the author acknowledges at the start due to reasons of female Pop artists receiving sustained attention much later in their careers as in Pop-another book to come out of that methinks) and artists such as Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenburg and Jim Dine rarely get a mention despite also being in the pop scene. Still, it would be impossible to cover it all at the cost of substituting in-depthly discussions on the five artists chosen. Also, if you're going to pick five pop artists then Hamilton, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Richter and Ruscha seem at least pivotal ones to go for, also they are all painters. All of which poses the question, do we get tired of the same big names all the time? How much more is there to know, can we deconstruct about Warhol and Lichtenstein that hundreds of other books and essays haven't already told us? It is a fair question, I think and one that has no definitive answer, I only think that every individual book, no matter how popular the subject matter will always offer a different take and for some readers that 'take' or shall we say interpretation of a popular artist and their work might be the first time they've ever read/come across that work. So the whole thing is, as ever, very subjective; both to reader and author. 'Subjective' being the key word here and is actually how the five artists in, 'The First Pop Age' are untied in what Foster writes as he unravels the workings and decision makings in their paintings. Foster does take a different interpretation from the norm and chooses to discuss the formal qualities of Pop rather than subject matter. He also takes Pop further by debating how it has influenced images today, i.e screened and scanned images and whether we have moved on from Pop or do echoes of it still remain? I enjoyed reading what Foster had to say about works like '$he' by Hamilton and 'In the car' by Lichtenstein that are familiar to me and I can honestly say I never really knew anything much about Ruscha's work so that was also an eye opener. The good thing about the book was the breadth of work by each of the five artists (illustrated beautifully in colour!), as Foster discusses several important works by each of them making the whole thing a lot more paced and lively. All of which couldn't be more appropriate for a book on Pop Art. To speak generally again, I think I have always found books on pop art to be somewhat of a contradiction, the art in Pop is very often meant to be seen on impact and immediacy where as a book on Pop is always asking you to, 'stop' and 'reflect' and consider what it all might mean and I suppose whilst having the two together in the form of a book on Pop Art, like 'The First Pop Age' is somewhat of a contradiction what it is overall saying is that it doesn't matter if you're not interested in Gerhard Richter working from photographs, Richard Hamilton using collaged images or Andy Warhol reproducing food packaging what books like this do highlight is the complexity of our relationship to images and how we choose or are influenced to read into them or not. And that is interesting to every artist even if you don't like Pop.

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