Top of the Pops

The invention of kitsch, critic Clement Greenberg wrote in 1939, was part and parcel of European industrialization. The continent’s newly dislocated masses found themselves stuck, from Birmingham to Berlin, between an urbane high culture to which they had no connection and a folk culture whose significance was indelibly rooted in the countryside they had left behind, and kitsch, Greenberg argued, was devised to fill this gap. Produced by committee, designed by formula, and motivated by profit, kitsch “pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money—not even their time.”

In light of such acid prose—which appears in his seminal Partisan Review essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”—it’s no surprise that Greenberg barely deigned to comment, a quarter century later, on Pop art. For what did Pop’s emergence appear to augur but kitsch’s colonization of the avant-garde, and thus high art’s complete surrender to its profit-hungry nemesis? As critic Max Kozloff wrote in the British journal Art International in 1962: “Art galleries are being invaded by the pin-headed and contemptible style of gum chewers, bobby soxers, and, worse, delinquents”—by precisely those unseemly characters, in other words, for whom kitsch had been concocted in such bad faith over a century before.

Kozloff’s derisive line, paired with allied put-downs by art historians Peter Selz and Michael Fried, appears already on the second page of Thomas Crow’s magisterial new study, The Long March of Pop. By setting Kozloff’s anti-Pop derision against the folk-art openness of early Museum of Modern Art (New York) curators Alfred Barr and Herbert Cahill and, most significantly, wrapping this opposition together with analogous partisan divides in folk and popular music—opening with Bob Dylan, his first chapter closes with Lead Belly and Pete Seeger—Crow announces his study’s ambition and stakes with the best kind of storytelling force. Successful Pop art, he argues, was produced neither as preprogrammed kitsch (as Kozloff proposed) nor as condescendingly minded anti-kitsch (as many have argued since), but rather as a form of pastoral art, distilling and emulating just the sort of wide-ranging everyday cultural forms celebrated by Barr, Cahill, Seeger, and Dylan in turn. Retelling Pop’s tale accordingly means delving full force into both its long march and its broad reach, investigating generative links to both the folk practices that preceded it and the subcultures—from advertising to surfing to rock music—that established its contexts, produced the material it emulated, and, beginning the cycle anew, fed off and regenerated its forms.

Not just Pop art and not simply the ’60s, then, but—as the book’s subtitle declares—Art, Music, and Design 1930–1995. Lest this suggest another blandly broad-minded survey of the “everything went Pop!” variety, let it be said that Crow’s tightly wound and elegantly worked tales are anything but. Moving from New York to London to Los Angeles to, finally, Havana via Paris (though notably not to Düsseldorf, perhaps because of the uncomfortable bumps Richter et al. might have caused the book’s Pop ride), his chapters tell interwoven microhistories that in nearly every case expand and recast our understanding of their subjects. In so doing, The Long March of Pop joins a host of recent publications and exhibitions—among them Hal Foster’s 2012 study, The First Pop Age, the Walker Art Center’s soon-to-open exhibition “International Pop,” and recent retrospectives of Roy Lichtenstein, Sigmar Polke, and Jeff Koons—that seek to both diversify and deepen Pop’s legacy.

Crow’s initial look at Warhol, for instance (he is the primary subject of three chapters), approaches the artist’s Pop practice through the lens of his early ad designs—not, as has generally been done, by mining them for elements that would later inflect his gallery production, but rather by asking: Why did Warhol give up commercial art for “high” art at all? As Crow introduces this line of inquiry:

When art historians and curators discuss Warhol, their own professional assumption is that being a fine artist is simply so inherently superior that his ambitions require no further explanation. But things would not have appeared so clear-cut at the time. Given that Warhol’s calculated move into fine art initially courted incomprehension, not to say ridicule, from within the established art world, the question not often asked is, why it would have made sense for him to try it at all.

These sentences exemplify much of Crow’s tone and strategy in The Long March of Pop. Beginning with an acerbic art-historical dig, he continues by posing a question whose counterintuitive simplicity—yes, why did Warhol move from ads to art?—justifies the implied opprobrium. Guided by such prompts, and working far from the Greenberg-indebted cultural binaries that have long dominated Pop analysis, Crow manages throughout his book to draw out complexly braided historical particulars that reanimate the seemingly familiar. In the case of Warhol’s shift, he proceeds by examining the so-called creative revolution of late-’50s American advertising and arguing that, faced with the innovations of such figures as Helmut Krone (father of VW’s “Think small” campaign) and Milton Glaser (of New York’s Push Pin Studios), Warhol found himself increasingly out of step with the applied-graphics world. So, Crow claims, the artist’s move from newspaper pages to gallery walls at the dawn of the ’60s was motivated less by critical antagonism toward commercial design’s consumer-driven ethos than by a growing recognition that his own ad-making tendencies were increasingly anachronistic. Warhol made art, in short, because he recognized that he was becoming less and less skilled at making ads.

Jim Fitzpatrick, Viva Che, 1968, photostat and felt-tip pen on paper, 36 × 24".
Jim Fitzpatrick, Viva Che, 1968, photostat and felt-tip pen on paper, 36 × 24″. Courtesy Jim Fitzpatrick

In sections on Richard Hamilton, James Rosenquist, Ed Ruscha, and others—including, notably, less-often considered figures such as Robert Indiana and Billy Al Bengston—Crow pursues a similar strategy of inversion. Instead of staking a claim for artists’ aesthetic elevation or critical repositioning of simpleminded mass-cultural forms, he probes popular culture’s complexly diverse folds as equal—and arguably more vibrant—partners in this high-low dance. In doing so, he extends his career-spanning investigation of art’s place within the broader structures and narratives of public life, work carried out in historical studies reaching from prerevolutionary France to, in The Rise of the Sixties (1996), Pop’s own primary decade, and in critical essays in the pages of Artforum and elsewhere. Most pointedly, The Long March of Pop continues the argumentative trajectory announced in Crow’s landmark 1981 essay “Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts”—which, in tracing the mass-culture appropriations of early modernists from Manet and Seurat to Picasso and the Surrealists, functions in retrospect as a prolegomenon to the present volume. As he writes near the end of that earlier essay:

In their selective appropriation from fringe mass culture, advanced artists search out areas of social practice that retain some vivid life in an increasingly administered and rationalized society. These they refine and package, directing them to an elite, self-conscious audience. Certain played-out procedures within established high art are forcibly refused, but the category itself is preserved and renewed—renewed by the aesthetic discoveries of non-elite groups.

Such, essentially, is the thesis of The Long March of Pop. So we see—in all cases motivated by this same tactic of repackaging and renewal—Hamilton and the London-based Independent Group mining American magazine ads, Indiana seizing on the “capitalist heraldry” of gas-station signage, and Bengston looking to the California culture of surfboard building.

Crow’s archaeology of these developments is distinguished by a consummate play between specificity and expansiveness, utilizing historical and material detail to articulate not just the isolated steps but the unfolding pattern of his two realms’ dialectical pas de deux. In his final chapter, “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game,” this circuit turns back on itself and the dance begins anew: Crow traces the expansion and mutation of visual tropes from Warhol’s factory to Jean-Luc Godard’s cutting room to Fidel Castro’s congress hall (with an intermediary stop at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom), and he identifies Jim Fitzpatrick’s ubiquitous 1968 photostat Viva Che as arguably Pop’s paradigmatic image. In it, we see a selection of prototypical Pop elements (photomechanical reproduction, simplified color contrasts, heraldic positioning) put to work far beyond the established bounds of art to become a “virally multiplying banner of revolutionary enthusiasm,” establishing Pop art’s street-derived forms as a visual lingua franca for the insurrectional energies of the street itself.

The depth and range of historical knowledge Crow brings to such stories is nothing short of stunning, especially given the central role played by popular music, only touched on in this review, in several of them. It’s thus remarkable that outright kitsch, as either theory or fact, is all but absent from his study; Greenberg hardly merits a mention. Readers may also register the minimal role played by women and artists of color in the narrative—a limitation, Crow suggests, of Pop art itself, which was defined in part by its “general refusal to confront the gigantic component of the national vernacular that is African-American in origin.” If Crow’s brilliant survey only touches on such absences and refusals, one of its many effects will surely be to galvanize new thinking in just their direction—that of the less-trodden pathways followed and crossed by Pop’s long, wide march.

Graham Bader is an associate professor of art history at Rice University and a visiting research fellow at Berlin’s Humboldt-Universität.