The Powers behind American Pop Art

by J.M. Hammond

Special To The Japan Times

Brash, bold and unabashedly low-brow, much of Pop Art took inspiration from the imagery of popular culture to forge what many consider to be the preeminent art form of the mid-20th century.

Starting from the 1960s, art buyers John and Kimiko Powers amassed what has become one of the largest collections of American Pop Art. About 200 pieces from this collection are currently on show at the National Art Center, Tokyo. Although the title, “American Pop Art From the John and Kimiko Powers Collection,” reminds us of its unavoidable U.S.-bias, like any exhibition structured around a single collection, the show runs the risk of presenting a distorted image of its subject. Visitors will have to remind themselves of the fact Pop Art was flowering in Britain before it did in the United States, and of the considerable connections and shared ideas across the Atlantic that subsequently developed.

The Powers adorned their Colorado home with the choicest selections of works by their Pop artist friends, not least of whom was Andy Warhol. His mass-produced silkscreen prints typify the Pop Art aesthetic and mark the distance American art had traveled from the physicality, and perceived elitism, of Abstract Expressionism — the style that had reigned supreme over the previous few decades.

But Pop Art in America needed to take some leaps before it got to that point, and the exhibition traces the movement’s tentative early steps with a section each on Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, two artists often considered to be associated, but not fully aligned, with the movement. Rauschenberg’s “combines” (from the mid-1950s) fuse the rugged, painterly brushstrokes of the abstract expressionists with a return to an interest in images of, and even physical objects from, the real world. Many of the artist’s works here reference two key tropes of American culture — sports and violence — as in his use of stills from the film “Bonnie and Clyde” in a series of lithographs and silkscreens from 1967-1968.

A number of works by Johns use numbers, flags and targets, foregoing the traditional rendering of the three-dimensional world onto the flat surface of the painting, while at the same time moving on from pure abstraction. White Alphabets “A-Z” (1968) catches much of this ambiguity: Up-close you can read the alphabetic characters stamped with print type into the fresh all-white pigment, but if you look from further back, the canvas dissolves into indecipherable patterns or abstract ripples of textured paint.

Further differentiating Pop Art is its sidelining of oil and canvas in favor of a range of unorthodox, often industrial, materials. This is highlighted in a room dedicated to Jim Dine and Larry Rivers, two artists on the fringe of Pop Art, where Rivers’ 1964 representation of Dine behind a storm window forces painting into the three dimensional. Johns also ventures into mixed-media collage and Rauschenberg prints images onto transparent plexiglass, while Claes Oldenberg uses vinyl and foam for his “soft sculptures.” His drooping “Giant Soft Drum Set” (1967) reflects the mentoring role the Powers had with the artists whose work they collected — it was made in Colorado, inspired by the region’s mountain range, while Oldenberg was taking part in the Artist in Residency program set up by John Powers.

This relationship between patron and artist is explored further in the section “Artists as Friends”, in which works commissioned by the Powers or gifted to them on special occasions — such as a small print by Warhol of a shadow sprinkled with diamond dust — are displayed alongside posters for several exhibitions and events organized by the Powers.

The room in the exhibition with the most impact is no doubt that dedicated to the Powers’ collected works by Warhol. His famous “Campbell’s Soup Cans” come in a variety of configurations: his huge panel from 1962 of 200 small cans (the first time for it to be shown in Japan), and a set of 10 larger ones. Also lined up in rows, as if on supermarket shelves, are “Marilyns” in a pack of 10, along with 10 electric chairs, 10 flowers and 10 “Chairman Maos” — all endlessly replicable, marketable and bankable.

The section on Roy Lichtenstein does a good job of introducing lesser-known works from his career and of showing how, unlike many other Pop artists, Lichtenstein did not turn his back on fine art. His picture of a girl looking in a mirror echoes the genre of vanitas pictures going back hundreds of years, and his take on Monet’s impressions of Rouen Cathedral re-engages with the history of art and representation, utilizing his signature Ben-Day dot idea taken from comic books. Neither does the section fail to feature a number of his well-known paintings in this style, including those of the types of explosions (“Crak!,” 1964) portrayed in war-themed comics.

The exhibition ends, though, with less of a “Varoom!” than a bit of a fizzle, with some less interesting works by affiliated artists, although Tom Wesselman’s female figure studies restore some of the balance, encapsulating much of the particular taste of Pop Art in America that the exhibition intends to convey.

“American Pop Art: From the John and Kimiko Powers Collection” at the National Art Center, Tokyo, runs till Oct. 21; open 10 a.m.- 6 p.m.(Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,500. Closed Tue. www.nact.jp