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“International Pop” at The Walker Art Center

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When we think of Pop art, we often think of British and American artists like Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, Blake, and Warhol. The current “International Pop” exhibition at the Walker Art Center (open through August 29) aims to broaden our understanding of Pop to Asia, South America, and Europe. Whitewall recently spoke with co-curator Bartholomew Ryan, who, along with lead curator Darsie Alexander, hoped to give viewers a “renewed understanding for the timeliness and relevance of Pop.” Ryan, currently the Milton Fine Curator at the Andy Warhol Museum, answered a few of our questions about just how international the Pop art movement was.

WHITEWALL: Pop art is primarily associated with Britain and the US, but this show seeks to include all of Pop’s various iterations over different geographies. What countries are represented, and how did the movement change to fit these different cultures and geographies?

BARTHOLOMEW RYAN: The exhibition features work from over 20 countries, but the areas that receive a stronger focus in terms of dedicated sections are Britain, Japan, Argentina, Brazil and Germany. The period covered is from the mid 1950s to the early 1970s, and these countries had particularly vital scenes during that time. To be honest, some hard choices had to be made, but in the end we think of the exhibition as selective not exhaustive. The exhibition doesn’t include all of Pop’s various iterations by any means, however what it does do is create a new more diverse and frankly accurate foundation with which to approach Pop scholarship into the future.

WW: The exhibition is broken up into five thematic sections, can you talk a bit about that curatorial choice, and how all of the themes – New Realisms, The Image Travels and the Archive Shifts, Distribution & Domesticity, Pop & Politics, and Love & Despair – all fit into the larger framework of Pop?

BR: We worked for some time to come up with a methodology for the gallery installation that we felt would do the artists and the work justice. We struggled in a sense because we didn’t want to create a bunch of silo-ed experiences, one geography to the next to the next. At the same time, to have purely thematic sections would, we felt, risk turning Pop into a style. If you experience the installation at the Walker, the movement from one section to the next is pretty fluid.

New Realisms is a catch all term that allows us to demonstrate early in the exhibition the various foundations on which we construct the show. In a sense this section creates a lingua franca, or foundation with which to approach the rest of the exhibition.

Distribution & Domesticity really reflects on the newly abundant commodity culture that emerged in the 50s and 60s, albeit to different effects and intensities depending on the regions covered. It really introduces intimations of the good life promoted by advertising, the ways in which products were sold by way of lifestyles that people could engage or subscribe to by owning the products.

The Image Travels is quite a personal space, pointing to artists archiving practices, and really thinking about how images resonated differently according to the geo-political and social points of their engagement by artists. Here we have works as varied as scrapbooks by British artist Eduardo Paolozzi from the 1940s and 1950s which show the first intimations of the British response to the encroaching U.S. popular culture, to a scrapbook by Bratislavan artist Július Koller, someone who had tremendous access to Western popular culture through a vital black market for print publications, but in his work this culture is something of a projection, it marks the absence of same in his own Communist state.

The Pop & Politics section is probably one of the more diverse thematic sections. Here we see cold war politics play out in numerous works, an understanding by many artists that the popular culture of the West was the other side of the coin to Soviet or Chinese propaganda, that each visual culture plays out to affirm and prop up the ideological systems with which they are associated.

The last section, and the one that I think Darsie Alexander and I are most excited by, is Love & Despair. This section is really about how artists, many of them women, some gay, all of whom operating from an ambiguous position in relation to mainstream social norms, engage the constructive properties of advertising, news, propaganda and the media, and insert different forms of identity, different ideas about who gets to look and how they look. These artists use humor, pathos and some sophisticated commentary, to find the gaps in which to express newly emergent ideas about who we are and can be as people. It’s a delightful and uncanny section. It seems to me that this section of the exhibition is the most future oriented, and will hopefully gain most traction via critical response over time.

WW: The show also has five geographic sections for Britain, Germany, Brazil, Argentina and Japan. Why did you feel it was important to devote attention to these places in particular? Why not include an American section since the movement is so closely tied to Andy Warhol’s New York?

BR: You know America is the great inevitable, it’s everywhere really. To some extent you could say this is an exhibition about American power, and artists responses to it throughout the world (or even from within). I think for us it was essential to include Britain, because the activities of the Independent group were such a savvy engagement with the then nascent U.S. popular culture, one that was about reception and delay and a keen processing of this paradigm shift. Not having a dedicated section on the U.S. gave us room to have the other sections, where we believed there was a greater urgency to have the stories be told and made visible to a U.S. public. I think aspects of this exhibition could be taken as a model and reapplied in a more focused way on U.S. Pop. That’s a major show that still needs to be made.

WW: You’re covering a lot of content and ground in one show, what challenges did that present, and how many galleries will the show occupy in the end?

BR: The exhibition takes up some 12,000 square feet, and at the moment includes 12 galleries at the Walker.  The challenge of course was deciding what to include, and then how to tell the story in a way that would be open and generous enough to be able to encompass the range of works on view. The complexity around the loans for this exhibition can’t really be described, suffice is to say I think it will be a long time before such an exciting range of historical objects from so far afield are gathered together in one exhibition in the U.S. again. As mentioned, probably the greatest challenge was coming upon a methodology for display, one that would allow the works to exist in relation, but not divest them of their social, political and aesthetic specificity. We wanted the exhibition to live, not feel like an entombed museum display. I think we’ve largely succeeded, the exhibition feels very contemporary and present.

WW: After exploring the diversity of the genre, do you have a favorite iteration of Pop? If so, did that change for you over the course of working on this show?

BR: I am pretty overwhelmed by the production coming out of Buenos Aires in the early to mid-1960s, Pierre Restany called it Pop Lunfardo (Lunfardo is the name for the street slang of Buenos Aires), it had this very light almost Utopian projection of human identity, a seemingly uncritical embrace of love, life, laugher, self expression through fashion, the embrace of popular tendencies from the U.S., France and Britain. It was camp, playful and kitsch, crossed multiple disciplines and was largely associated with the activities of the progressive and internationalist Instituto Torcuato di Tella in Buenos Aires. Many of these artists were women or gay, and had an irreverent attitude to social norms.

WW: What do you ultimately hope that the viewer will take away from this exhibition? 

BR: A renewed understanding for the timeliness and relevance of Pop. A realization that it was very much the moment that anticipates our networked social media world of today, and an appreciation for the daring and exuberance of the artists that they see there.


“International Pop” is on view through August 29 at the Walker Art Center.



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