When Pop Art exploded onto the international art scene more than a half-century ago, it won hearts and eyeballs with its splashy color, enthusiasm for daily life and sassy adaptation of design techniques more often used in advertising — flat patterns, bold lettering, simplified forms, really big images. In the early ’60s when the world was still rebuilding after the devastation of World War II and the U.S. had not yet sunk deep into the quagmire of Vietnam, optimism was in the air and Pop Art carried it.
That sunny, youthful spirit still percolates in “Pop Art and Beyond,” a show of 26 lithographs, etchings and screen prints by guys — and they are all guys — whose names constitute an all-star Pop team: Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, Jim Dine, David Hockney, Robert Indiana, Alex Katz, Ed Ruscha, Wayne Thiebaud and their latter-day acolyte Julian Opie.
On view at the Highpoint Center for Printmaking through March 29, the show is an attractive diversion that holds no surprises and breaks no unplowed ground. All of the artists are represented by subjects on which they long ago stamped their signatures: a U.S. flag for Johns, Indiana’s word “Love,” a tray of cupcakes and doughnuts for Thiebaud, a Hockney swimming pool, a Dine heart, a lithe beauty for Katz, and so on. Cover the labels and the show would make a fun “Pop” quiz for an art history class.
What recommends the exhibit is its iconic accessibility. Smartly displayed in Highpoint’s sunny galleries, “Pop” is a primer for its period and would be a fine introduction for anyone unfamiliar with that moment in mostly American culture (Hockney and Opie are British). While the subject matter was mostly branded by these artists early in their careers, the prints on view were made between 1967 and 2010, which allows for some unusual nuance.
Jasper Johns is represented by a tenderly innocent “Flag on Orange.” An etching and aquatint he self-published in 1998, the image reprises a favorite subject — the American flag — as if it were a winsome party favor rather than the moody, thickly impastoed symbol he has often painted in white, gray or eye-tricking combos of orange and green as well as conventional red, white and blue. Smaller than a playing card and rendered in watery stripes and spots, the little flag floats in a sunny apricot sky. It’s a lovely thing, so buoyant and pure it momentarily cleanses that tattered emblem of the patriotic gore that has accrued to it in the 60 years since Johns turned out his first version in 1954. That Johns, a U.S. Army vet born in 1930, can still see that flag through the eyes of a child says something hopeful about him, the country, or both.
Indiana’s famous rendition of the word “Love” as a square of red letters on a blue and green ground still packs terrific punch in a notably crisp screen print. Thiebaud offers a lovely tray of pastry in squiggles of aqua, lavender and black from Crown Point press. Wesselmann, the ultimate Popster, delivers a twofer in his huge 1993 “Still Life With Liz,” which pairs fruit and flowers with a portrait of Liz Taylor in the style of Andy Warhol. Next come enormous daisies by Warhol and a pair of Rauschenberg collages that neatly mash up photos of traditional art and contemporary life.
Rosenquist’s “Silver Skies,” a lithograph from 1970, is a sly depiction of three pastel funnels writhing below a silver miasma. A casual observer might read them as blue, yellow and pink ice cream cones; a North Dakotan like Rosenquist would more likely mean tornadoes.