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Joseph Rykwert pops to the Barbican

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By placing Eames chairs and Tupperware next to the usual suspects, the Barbican’s Pop Art and Design show has not solved the problem of what Pop is and isn’t – but visit it anyway, advises Joseph Rykwert

‘Brash, colourful and playful,’ the Barbican calls the ‘movement’: an exhibition about Pop art and design – yes, design – should therefore provide unadulterated pleasure. Not just pleasure, but fun. That, after all, is what the movement – if movement it is – was supposed to be about. Or at least it was to be, ‘Popular (designed for a mass audience); Transient (short-term solution); Expendable (easily forgotten); Low Cost; Mass Produced; Young (aimed at youth); Witty; Sexy; Gimmicky; Glamorous; Big Business.’ So wrote Richard Hamilton (who should have known, since he is now considered its founding father) when he tried to define it in a letter to Alison and Peter Smithson in January 1957.

But of course, the word itself was borrowed from music. It had been about in the 20s and was used initially to label dance and palm court stuff, and later to separate the music of youth bands and the songsters from ‘rock’ and ‘blues’ and even ‘jazz’. It then moved into the visual arts in the 50s, and its ‘birth certificate’ (as the catalogue insists) was Hamilton’s collage done in 1956: Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? Its central figure, a dumb muscleman, is stripping his briefs off with one hand, while the other brandishes a giant lollipop labelled POP. Awaiting him on a sofa, a girl proffers a prosthetically prominent bosom; between them is a tape-deck, a large tin labelled ‘ham’ and a television screen, while at his back a female servant is vacuuming the stairs; overhead is a photograph of a cinema sign advertising Al Johnson’s The Jazz Singer.

If America meant plenty, it also meant liberty and pleasure

The envy of American plenty is obvious – it was only two years since food rationing had ended – though if America meant plenty, it also meant liberty and pleasure. The Italian mythologising of America in the spaghetti western, so enthusiastically taken up throughout Europe at the time, is another strand the exhibition rightly picks out.

If you look at Hamilton’s list though, some of the qualities he demands – like transience and expendability – are denied by there being such an exhibition at all; mass-produced is also left behind, as is low cost (the public battles about the authenticity of Andy Warhol’s detritus and the prices involved give the lie to that). But then Hamilton’s list does not apply to much Americana included here. If English Pop had the feel of a post-austerity carnival, so New York Pop was a snook cocked at the solemnities of Abstract Expressionism. Roy Lichtenstein’s Yellow Brushstroke II (1965) in the show is an obvious case of that: a dripping brush making the liquid stroke is turned by his invariable method or shtick into a half-tone dot pattern. His is almost archetypal Pop therefore. But Jasper Johns’ seductive textures, which animate even his monochrome stars-and-stripes, belong to a different world, as do Robert Rauschenberg’s equally seductive assemblies, or his light-fingered and painterly canvases – even when he, too, uses transfer techniques (both are included here). Unlike them, Lichtenstein emphasised his Pop identity by his sharp, bright, flat colours locked in black outlines with words like ‘Whaam!’ or ‘Blam’, or else ballooned sentimental cartoon snatches into his compositions. All this is very different from what was going on in Britain, where Joe Tilson, Derek Boshier, Peter Blake (with a little help from The Beatles) formed a refreshingly lyrical and colouristically brilliant Pop group, with David Hockney weaving in and out of it; they are woefully under-represented at the Barbican.

If English Pop had the feel of a post-austerity carnival, so New York Pop was a snook cocked at the solemnities of Abstract Expressionism

Hamilton stood apart. Unlike them, he was emphatically political and devoted much energy to his hatred of Hugh Gaitskell, whom he portrayed as a monster; later he got involved in Irish affairs as well. He was, however, also interested in rational, sober product design and was fascinated by machinery: in some of his earliest drawings, he concentrated on combine harvesters, and many later canvases show the transformation of car bodies; there is though a collage of the quite un-Pop Braun toaster (the work of the masterly Dieter Rams) in the exhibition. Rams (as chief designer for Braun) still has great prestige – Steve Jobs was a self-confessed disciple – so that Hamilton’s obsession, a touch solemnly perhaps, introduces the skewered business of Pop art and design.

It’s all a bit confused therefore, as is the recruiting of Charles and Ray Eames into the Pop camp. Their designs – furniture particularly – may often have been popular and occasionally (though not all that often) cheap; but some were very expensive indeed, and were certainly intended to last. The plastic chair which they designed long ago and into which Saul Steinberg scribed a naked lady, so that you sat on her lap as you eased yourself into it, is, in any case, too light-hearted for Barbican earnestness. Maybe irony is not a mode for which the students of Pop have much time. Early Andy Warhol (before he turned himself into a factory, that is) was doing Steinberg emulations. But Steinberg himself is not much of a presence in the show, though he dealt with or played on so many Pop themes.

What is on show in plenty are plastic objects in bright colours – anonymous, cheap, disposable – such as Tupperware bowls; they fitted Hamilton’s Pop categories, but very distinguished they were not. On the other hand the work of Ettore Sottsass (which certainly has distinction) is much featured, and great play is made of his Valentina typewriter for Olivetti, which replaced the rational, graceful and cheaper Lettera 22 Olivetti had been selling for years. Valentina – the harsh, elementary colours, the clunky works – has the recognisable Pop-design look favoured by the Barbican curators and it makes Sottsass, designer of many garishly bright and barely usable furniture-as-accessory pieces, one of their heroes.

And are we in for a Pop revival? This is a bright, shapely, populist exhibition as befits the style, even if a little short on humour, which is shown mostly by the graphics, whose elegance and ebullience owes more to Dada and to the best of the 30s than to contemporary practitioners.

Still, the displays are excellent, even when the choice of exhibits may seems questionable, and there is much here that will be unfamiliar and provide juxtapositions which many will surely find brash, colourful and playful, just as the organisers promised. Go and see it for yourselves, in spite of all my carping.

  • Joseph Rykwert is Paul Philippe Cret professor of architecture emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, and recipient of the 2014 RIBA Royal Gold Medal


Pop Art Design, Barbican Art Gallery, Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London EC2Y 8DS. Until 9 February 2014, adult ticket £12, catalogue RRP £61. Sat-Wed 10am-6pm, Thu & Fri 10am-9pm


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