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Inside Guggenheim Bilbao’s New Pop Art Exhibition

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By Lucy Cocoran on 23rd February 2024

When the Pop Art movement took hold of the US and UK in the mid to late 1950s, it challenged every archetypal notion of art.

Now, Guggenheim Bilbao is taking a look back at some of the biggest works to emerge from this movement, reimagining them in a new context and reintroducing them to a new age.

Signs and Objects. Pop Art from the Guggenheim Collection has been curated by Lauren Hinkson and Joan Young, both of whom are curators for the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum. The Sybarite attended the exhibition’s opening in Spain, viewing the collective works ahead of time and hearing from the curators on Pop Art’s enduring relevance.

What is Pop Art? 

At its core, Pop Art was a revolt against dominant and traditional beliefs as to ‘what constitutes art.’ With its satirisation of consumer culture, bold use of colour, and blurring of high and low culture, the Pop Art movement was a bold reimagining of how art could be created, while providing a social commentary and scathing critique of the world’s growing obsession with consumerism. 

To create their associated works, artists began turning to pop music, comic books, Hollywood films and advertisements for inspiration. 

Words such as gimmicky, glamorous, transient and of course, popular, were all used to describe the work which emerged from this movement. 

What were some criticisms of Pop Art? 

Perhaps the most defining characteristic of Pop Art also posed its biggest downfall, with many arguing that artworks emerging from this era lacked depth when compared to traditional artforms. Of course, the aesthetics were part of its allure, but it also invited criticism towards artists’ chosen methods and sources of inspiration. 

Similarly, while several key pieces attempted scrutinisation of consumerism, some critics argued they were glorifying it. Seen as an endorsement rather than commentary, there was artistic discourse sparked around how certain pieces were navigating this tension. 

How is the Guggenheim honouring Pop Art? 

This Pop Art exhibition features iconic works from 17 artists, which were either already in Guggenheim Bilbao or had been acquired from Guggenheim New York. These creatives are a combination of both classic American pop artists (including Andy Warhol, Richard Hamilton, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg) and artists engaging with the movement from Columbia, Greece, the UK and Spain. 

The name of the exhibition, ‘Signs and Objects,’ is, as Hinkson, describes it, a “tip of the hat to Guggenheim history.” This is due to its derivation from the four Pop Art categories established by Lawrence Alloway in 1962, who was working as a curator at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum at the time. These categories by which to distinguish Pop Art works were; Ready Mades or Rebuilt Objects, Objects and Flat Painting, Paintings of Objects, and Painting of Signs and Signs. In honour of their separateness in this exhibition, the signs collection is in one room and objects are in another, signifying a clear distinction between the two styles.

This ‘history’, which is a critical part of the retrospective, is also, in some regards, an aspect the exhibit is attempting to change. A critical part of this is by spotlighting the works of POC and female artists who have previously been left in the dark. 

“Guggenheim is focusing on diversity equity and inclusion to build holdings for female and POC artists who have historically been omitted from the canon,” Hinkson says, before adding that “looking retrospectively at pockets of depth like Pop Art is a great way of doing so.” 

“There are a number of acquisition groups looking at different history’s to fill gaps in order to tell a richer art history within the museum's programming,” Young reiterated. 

While this exhibition is notable for myriad reasons, key among them is the conscious decision to spotlight works of art which have been created by POC and female artists. Several of note include Chryssa, Lucia Hierro, Josephine Meckseper and Niki De Saint Phalle. 

In this exhibition, contemporary artists are extending the legacy of fundamental artists, seeing a fusion of creative minds from both past and present in a vibrant, exciting way. 

“The Guggenheim has the most significant connection in the world to Pop Art, which means we can truly understand what the origins of this movement were like,” said Joan Young, one of the exhibition curators. 

What are some notable works on display at the Guggenheim Bilbao? 

A Little Bit of Everything (De Todo Un Poco), 2017–21, Lucia Hierro

Hierro utilises everyday objects to explore ideas of class, exclusion and privilege. In the oversized sculpture on display, recognisable items include typical products one might find within a New York bodega, including a packet of honey buns, a lotto card, and a Greek coffee cup, to name a few. Forming part of her Mercado (market) series, there is an absurdist quality to the work, with items seemingly mismatched and visually arresting at first, but quickly becoming cohesive and complementary upon closer inspection.  

New York bodegas are an institution in the city, utilised not only for their convenience, but for their ability to socialise immigrant and working class populations. Hierro has previously spoken about the damaging effects of gentrification and its sweeping of these groups to the outskirts of places they once called home. Other items in the bag speak more directly to culture and race, specifically how these concepts have intersected with Hierro’s own life. The Dominican-American artist decided to include symbols such as a Country Club soda bottle and a baseball card of San Francisco Giants pitcher Juan Marichal, speaking more directly to her Latin heritage. 

As for how her piece engages with the Pop Art movement, the focus on consumerism and consumerist items is a reflection of how we place meaning on physical objects and items, and how they can become vessels for concepts which far outweigh their shelf price. 

Orange Disaster #5, 1963, Andy Warhol 

Increasingly fixated on news reports of death and violence, Warhol began a series of silk screen prints , each of which spoke to the macabre side of media. This production method aligned with the Pop Art movement as Warhol incorporated elements of contemporary mass culture by utilising printed images from newspapers. Warhol appropriated the electric chair image from a press photograph dated January 13,1953. It was taken inside a death chamber at Sing Sing Prison in New York, where that same year, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for leaking classified information surrounding the atomic bomb to Russia during World War II.

Daddy, Daddy, 2008, Maurizio Cattelan

Located in a separate section of the objects exhibition, a life-size sculpture of Pinocchio can be seen lying face down in a body of water, dead. The puppet, who was created for the 1940 film, sacrifices his life in order to save a human being and is later rewarded with a resurrection into a real boy. In Cattelan’s piece, however, there is no resurrection, with the piece touching on themes of both mortality and morality. While it is unclear why Pinocchio has been found in this position, it is left open to viewer interpretation whether it be foul play, an accident, or potential suicide. Pinocchio has been said to hold special significance for Cattelan, who often reimagines himself in these works, using them as veiled self-portraits. 

Interior With Mirrored Wall, 1991, Roy Lichtenstein 

Four works by Roy Lichtenstein are on display in this exhibition, which is poignant, given his key influence in the Pop Art movement. His work sought to break down the distinction between high brow art from the galleries and low brow art for the masses which caused him to receive heavy scrutiny at the time. 

With a strong comic book slant, several of his pieces incorporated signature Ben-Day dots, playing with shadow and depth. His use of commercial techniques, employing these dots and acrylic paints,  gave his pieces a ‘printed’ effect which were reminiscent of a comic book. 

His piece, Interior With Mirrored Wall was inspired by everyday furniture advertisements, speaking to ideas of domesticity by contrasting seemingly mundane home spaces with a highly stylised aesthetic. Some pieces also referenced his own work, including them as framed pictures on the wall in a playful nod to his own creativity and position within the art world. 

Soft Shuttlecock, 1995, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen

Soft Shuttlecock, which was included in the opening exhibition of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 1997, has returned to the museum for this exploration. At the time of the sculpture’s creation, Oldenburg was already a prominent player in the Pop Art movement who was known for his oversized works. 

The pairs’ joint investigation of objecthood became their trademark and the Soft Shuttlecock was created specifically for the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum New York, in celebration of Oldenburg’s 1995 retrospective. With a whimsical approach to the structure, the work was constructed from pliant materials, allowing it to be bent and seemingly deflated. 

Signs and Objects. Pop Art from the Guggenheim Collection is open now until September 15, 2024. 

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