on 30 December 2011
My heart sank as I read this book. Thames and Hudson have achieved the impossible. They've made Pop Art boring - mind-crushingly dull. The book is badly written and pretentious - an object lesson in how not to write about art. In short, if you want to put someone off Pop Art for life give them this book.
The book contains five essays by four critics. Each covers various aspects of Pop Art - British Pop, New York Pop, Pop Art in California, Pop Icons and Pop Art in Europe and Canada. And guess what? This book was first published in 1966. So we're getting on-the-spot reports from people who were there at the time. The book was updated and this is a reprint of the 1970 third edition. So what could go wrong?
The American writer Tom Wolfe put his finger on the problem a few years later. In his famous book "The Painted Word", published in 1975, he railed against pompous and affected art critics. Tom tore them apart in a book that's as witty and relevant today as when it was written. The critics, writing in the Thames and Hudson book here under review, had no chance to read it. They were still stuck in their bad old ways when they could get away with pretentious guff and people would respect them for it. But Tom Wolfe knew what he was talking about. And this book on Pop Art illustrates his strictures to perfection.
Back in the 1960s it must have seemed a good idea to invite the English art critic, Lawrence Alloway, to write the first chapter - The Development of British Pop. After all, he invented the term 'Pop Art.' Alloway knew all the artists and liked their work. Yes, he actually met these art gods, visited their studios and spoke to them! He worked in the United States as well as England, gave lectures, wrote articles and books and organised exhibitions. He even married a painter.
There was only one problem. Alloway couldn't write good English to save his life. His article is littered with ugly expressions ... 'normative functions' ... 'a non-hierarchic profusion of images' ... 'symbol-thick scene' ... 'mechanomorphic eroticism'...
Tom Wolfe quoted one of his excruciating sentences in "The painted Word" and remarked: 'that may have been a bit hard to follow.' You're telling me.
Here's one of Alloway's sentences from this book: 'He developed a pictorial code of diagrammatic statements and elliptical condensations of events, set down as a scatter of discrete, ideographic centres, rather than one smooth discourse.'
Alloway's lack of any sense of irony is stunning. He had no idea how absurd his remarks were. Here's glorious example: 'Erotic imagery first appeared in two bikini close-ups (one up, one down, one front, one back) in 1962, though mainly in a decorative sense. Subsequently he has emphasized eroticism more, in thigh and groin paintings (the first in 1964), and in prolonged, unzipped stretches of girl (Ills. 20, 48).'
This is Pseud's Corner with a vengeance. Alloway had no idea how to bring these artists alive so they leap from the page. They're just a list of boring names who blur into an amorphous mass. He's is incapable of conveying atmosphere. He never conveys any of the excitement, fun, or agony of creating a work of art. And he's patronising. I found his remarks about David Hockney offensive.
Alloway was a bore - one of the great snoremongers of the art world. How can you examine Pop art and have no sense of humour - no sense of the absurd? But that's true of all the writers in this book. They have no sense of fun. There's not one amusing or witty remark in 200 pages. They approach Pop art like mourners at a funeral.
To be fair, none of the remaining writers is as bad as Alloway. He's in a class of his own. At least you can understand them - some of the time. But none can write well. Their prose is lifeless mush. I found my mind constantly wandering as I struggled through these essays trying to extract anything useful from their abysmal prose. I found the only way to stay awake was to read this book with a sense of irony looking for the absurd and unwittingly funny. It's a treasure trove of the Pseud's Corner quotes - pretentious and comic in the wrong way.
Take, for example, the comments about the Swedish sculptor Claes Oldenburg. He made large replicas of everyday objects, such as food ... a giant slice of cake, or a huge hamburger made out of cloth and plastic the size of motor car. To me they look obscene and threatening. Be honest - where on earth would you put one? Can you imagine a giant hamburger the size of a car in your home? But to Lucy R. Lippard, who edited this book and wrote two of the chapters and the introduction, 'They are appealing because they combine gaiety with elephantine sadness. They are, as Apollinaire said of Picasso's objects, "impregnated with humanity".'
In her chapter Pop Art in Canada Lucy tells us: 'Tinguely is a kinetic sculptor, Cesar an abstract sculptor, Niki de Saint-Phalle a compelling religious fetishist and mythologian, though maybe her shooting at her plaster and toy assemblages with a rifle was a "realist" gesture in Restany's sense.'
Time and again in this book you get a blizzard of names, most of whom will mean little to the average reader unversed in the subject. The book is inward looking - art critic showing off to art critic. And those art critics failed to find the words that could deal with the subject. The disparity between the workaday objects Pop artists were depicting and the language critics used - pretentious jargon - was too great. You might get away with it when dealing with fine art - but no, Kenneth Clark could write lucidly and entertainingly about the great landmarks of Western civilisation without resorting to this nonsense.
Andy Warhol once said when he was given a book he looked at the pictures and ignored the words. That must have seen like mindless philistinism at the time. But how right he was! Andy knew what he was talking about when it came to those old art critics. Too often their writing was no more than useless crud. That's what this book is - useless crud - dead words on a page.
My heart goes out to arts students who are forced to read this book in order to pass exams. It squeezes all joy out of the subject. When first published in 1960s it secured good reviews. But this is an old book and fifty years on it's aged badly. The publishers need to think again. Commission a new book. For heaven's sake find some critics who can write and bring the subject alive. In the meantime if you want to find out about Pop Art look up the entry on Wikipedia. It's brief, understandable and better written.