'International Pop' dazzles at Walker Art Center

The Walker takes a global view of an American favorite in “International Pop,” opening this weekend.

MARY ABBE
Updated 5/19/2015

From the American point of view, Pop Art is all about us. Big, brash, colorful, sexy, it’s about stuff we all know — movies, music, billboards, advertising, celebrities, food. No need to fret about politics or grope for a highbrow footnote when you’re looking at a painting of Marilyn, a beer can sculpture or a gigantic spoon with a cherry on top.

Pop, our way, is mostly a celebration of American capitalism in all its gaudy excess.

There’s more to the story, though, as Walker Art Center reveals in “International Pop,” a multinational extravaganza opening with a preview party Friday night and running through Aug. 29. After its Minneapolis premiere, the show will travel to museums in Dallas and Philadelphia through 2016.

With about 175 paintings, sculptures, drawings, films, videos and ephemera by more than 100 artists, on loan from dozens of museums and private collectors in 20 countries, “International Pop” is a kind of kissing cousin to the American version, related but definitely different. Still media-savvy and immersed in fashion, film, music and other youth-culture obsessions, “IP” is typically more political than American Pop and shaped by the ethos of the post-World War II cultures from which it comes.

“There was this unique energy about that time,” said Darsie Alexander, who co-curated the show with Bartholomew Ryan. Artists everywhere “were aware of fashion, were traveling and knew what was going on in the world. But at the same time people were really claiming the authenticity of their own regions even as they were embracing a truly global phenomenon.”

Alexander, a Walker curator from 2009 to 2014 who is now director of the Katonah Museum of Art in Katonah, N.Y., started work on the show more than five years ago. Trained as an art historian with a focus on painting and photography, she brought in the Irish-born Ryan, a Walker curator whose background is in film and critical theory. Together they rounded up a consortium of consulting curators and scholars who helped identify international artists and frame the sociopolitical forces that shaped Pop elsewhere.

“Pop was a moment that the general public can relate to, and I really wanted to bring that work to the Walker — work that was potent, visually stimulating, relevant and accessible,” Alexander said. “I wanted to bring people into the building with an idea they can relate to, and then have their minds blown when they get there.”

The featured artists include such American stalwarts as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Wayne Thiebaud, Ed Ruscha, Tom Wesselmann and Jim Dine. Some of the international cohort — including David Hockney (England), Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke (Germany), Hélio Oiticica (Brazil) and Tetsumi Kudo (Japan) — have been shown previously at the Walker, but new names are in the majority. Many come from countries whose Pop scene is unlikely to be familiar to most Americans: Belgium, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Poland and New Zealand among them.

Universal themes

“International Pop” avoids strict chronology, but includes art made roughly between 1958 and 1972. For historical context there is also an unusual, very early Pop-infused scrapbook from 1947.

Five broad themes provide an overview: “New Realisms” gathers art derived from advertising and other mass media. “The Image Travels & and the Archive Shifts” taps art influenced by comics and other media. “Distribution and Domesticity” deals with the abundance of new commodities after World War II. “Pop and Politics” plumbs the social unrest and war protests of the ’60s. “Love and Despair” embraces age-old themes revitalized in new formats.

Pop art especially flourished in five countries — Britain, Germany, Brazil, Argentina and Japan — each of which gets a special section focused on an influential group or movement.

Troubled politics

The political undercurrents are complicated. By the late 1950s, World War II was receding into history and even countries that had been flattened — Germany and Japan, in particular — were beginning to recover economically.

Still, an imbalance in affluence and power often made other cultures wary of American pop culture. Britain was an impoverished but democratic ally; Germany and Japan were vanquished enemies; Argentina and Brazil distrusted American dominance, and so forth.

One of the show’s most important sculptures was controversial from the start. “Western Civilization and Christianity” depicts a U.S. fighter jet diving with a crucifix attached. Made in 1965 by León Ferrari, an Argentine conceptual artist and social critic, “it was basically a protest against the Vietnam War but also a protest of what the right wing was doing in Argentina in the name of sustaining western Christian civilization,” Ryan explained.

“I think it’s a really important art work right now because of the Charlie Hebdo incident in France, because it raises the question of whether our culture can sustain that level of critique. It has a kind of feeling of the sublime because it also has this religious quality.”

Japanese artists of the 1960s also had an unusually complex relationship to America’s postwar hegemony.

“This young generation of Japanese artists was born under an imperial empire and all the indoctrination that involved,” said Ryan. “They witnessed carpet-bombing followed by the U.S. occupation and reconstruction, and then they had this influx of popular American culture and developed a healthy suspicion of ideology in general.”

Even the Walker’s own “Sixteen Jackies” by Warhol resonates differently in other contexts. The 1964 painting features 16 images of Jackie Kennedy, enlarged from grainy newspaper photos taken immediately before and shortly after President Kennedy was assassinated. To most Minnesotans, it is an iconic image from the Walker’s collection, a poignant memento of a tragic moment in the nation’s history.

But as Ryan talked about “Sixteen Jackies” with curators at the Dallas Museum of Art, to which the Pop show is traveling after its Minneapolis run, it elicited a peculiar response he didn’t at first understand.

“There was a gasp,” he said. “I was curious about the reaction and then it dawned on me” — Kennedy’s death still echoes in the town where the fatal shots were fired.

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