The Darker Side of Pop Art

by Rani Molla 1 year ago Filed Under: Design

Pop art appropriates everyday objects and aesthetics to examine — or embrace, as the case may be — the very culture of mass production and consumption in which they exist. Sinister Pop at the Whitney Museum of American Art is more pointed—a method designers should take to heart.

While it wasn’t always obvious how technicolor pop art felt about the ever-broadening culture it represented (Warhol maintained that he sincerely loved mass production and its cultural fallout), the  pieces in Sinister Pop usually have a clear target and the mood is angry. They more overtly attack the darker backdrop of ’60s America (today’s too): war, gender bias, racism, labor disputes, segregation, class war, the death penalty.

Installation view of Sinister Pop (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, November 15, 2012 – March 4, 2013). Photograph Ron Amstutz

This exhibition, aside from being an enjoyable exploration of the dark side of pop, provides a helpful hint to designers: Don’t bury “the lede” (journalism speak for the key part of a story).

If there’s something very important you’re trying to say, make sure you make the message loud and clear. Imagery, tone and text should work together to create a message that’s hard to ignore.

Peter Saul (b. 1934), Saigon, 1967. Enamel, oil, and synthetic polymer on canvas, 92 3/4 × 142 in. (235.6 × 360.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Friends of the Whitney Museum of American Art 69.103

Peter Saul attacks the Vietnam War in “Saigon” by making it disturbing to look at, with tawdry colors and vicious imagery. He also includes the text “white boys torturing and raping the people of Saigon.” In “L.B.J” Judith Bernstein takes on a president complicit in that same war war, both visually and rhetorically, by masking his image in steel wool and scrawling attacks against him in writing.

Judith Bernstein (b. 1942), “L.B.J.”, 1967. Newspaper, fabric, found paper, charcoal, oil stick, steel wool, and tape on paper, 26 5/8 × 40 × 1 1/2in. (67.6 × 101.6 × 3.8 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Drawing Committee 2010.86. © 1967 Judith Bernstein

Milton Glaser’s United Farm Workers’ protest poster, effectively titled “Don’t Eat Grapes,” says just that front and center, right above a cluster of grapes arranged like a skull.

Milton Glaser (b. 1929), Don’t Eat Grapes, 1969. Offset lithograph, sheet: 36 1/2 × 26 1/2in. (92.7 × 67.3 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase 2000.90. © Milton Glaser. Image © Whitney Museum of American Art

The Whitney wields its substantial pop art holding to show a more varied array of artists than are normally on a pop-art bill and a much darker side of the movement, one that is also an exercise in saying what you mean. It’s worth visiting if only to show that beyond pop art’s tongue-in-cheek, it’s all teeth.

Sinister Pop
Whitney Museum of American Art
Through March 31

Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.