Pop Art: Turning Trash into Art
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Pop Art: Turning Trash into Art

What are the differences between American and British Pop Art?

As a label 'Pop Art' has had to span a vast cultural, geographical, and temporal divide, grouping together the work of a multitude of artists with widely disparate concerns and intentions. The basis for such a grouping has been recognition of Pop's habitual reference to mass culture: the ephemera of advertising, packaging, comic strips, Hollywood films, and so on. What Clement Greenberg dismissed as kitsch, Pop's adherents exhibited as art. In terms of its intentions Pop is understood as trying to dissolve into each other the categories of high and mass culture, fine and commercial art, or to quote Greenberg, Avant-garde and kitsch - categories which had previously been considered separate. This, however, constitutes a very narrow definition of the term, hence its sometimes rather loose application. This fact can be demonstrated with reference to American and British Pop art.

Though it may be generally accepted that Pop on either side of the Atlantic uses for its subject matter the overflow of visual images from (specifically American) mass culture, a closer inspection reveals that American and British Pop are not as homogenous as this evidence might suggest. It has been argued that the wealth of stylistic, thematic and ideological differences stem directly from a certain fundamental difference which is an inevitable consequence of this situation. Clearly, if both strands make use of American mass cultural artefacts, then one does so as an acknowledgement of its own, intrinsic culture; the other adopts that of a foreign society and presents it to a public relatively unfamiliar with it. An assessment of the respective social climates of Britain and America at this time shows how this difference could become so significant.

In the years before Pop's development, consumerism and mass culture were not established phenomena in the US. Brand names and logotypes had become part of common experience through advertising and packaging etc., in forms such as Kellogg's, Coca-Cola, Ford and so on. These were presented to the public on a daily basis in the myriad hued, shaped and sized forms we are now more familiar with, and in fact have difficulty avoiding. Britain, by contrast, was still immersed in post-war austerity: rationing was not repealed until 1954; and such visual forms of mass culture as packaging and advertisements were a much less familiar sight.

Peter Blake, Self Portrait (1961)

By the time British pop was in its early stages, this situation had changed. Signs of American prosperity were beginning to creep on to the scene and the prospect of complete Americanisation was anticipated variously among artists and public. It became impossible to be ambivalent about the situation; one was either for or against it. A substantial body of criticism has identified a need for taking sides in British pop, either welcoming the process and celebrating American mass culture, or adopting a critical, sceptical stance and treating it in more anthropological terms. Peter Blake, for example, can be seen as aligned with the former group. His Self Portrait (1961) is openly celebratory of the influx of American imagery. The figure's (denim) jacket is adorned with badges depicting American stars; the US flag is present in the form of a shield shaped badge; and most tellingly of all, he holds a magazine depicting Elvis Presley, whose glamorous image is a marked contrast to the more everyday and mundane one of Blake. The figure of Blake is relatively austere and gritty, something which is emphasised by his clothes and the backgrounds almost monochromatic semblance. In contrast the American decorations are the only real presence of vibrant colour. In this way he suggests that the American imagery is set to transform the dowdiness of British visual culture. The fact that he welcomes the occurrence is indicated by the close proximity of the Stars and Stripes and a Union Jack (albeit in slightly diminished form). This states that the process of Americanization need not be the complete obliteration of British culture that some contemporaries feared. This relationship between passages of the painting suggests that Blake hopes there could be a harmonious balance between the two. Many of Blake's other works exhibit this celebratory enthusiasm, for example Elvis Mirror, and Everly Wall, both of which depict icons of US culture. Elvis Mirror and The First Real Target? perhaps show the influence of Jasper Johns whose art prefigures American pop and used targets as a visual motif in numerous works.

Peter Blake, The First Real Target?

The Independent Group, which met at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London between 1952 and 1955, has been read as taking the opposite viewpoint. One of the most famous works at the IG's This is Tomorrow exhibition, and one considered iconic of early pop was Richard Hamilton's collage 'Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?' This was not intended as a complete work to be seen in the original. Instead it was exhibited as a page in the exhibition catalogue. Though Marco Livingstone has remarked that it is uncharacteristic of Hamilton's work in this period it is nevertheless seen as one of the earliest examples of Pop. Being a collage of images of consumerism and popular entertainment, rather than a loving and assiduous copy of them as in Blake's work, this image is less obviously a celebration of these sources.

This assemblage of existing images perhaps exhibits a reluctance to actively engage with them, preferring to adopt a distant, critical stance. With a sense of bewilderment, images of popular culture are juxtaposed with corporate identity and transport (the Ford insignia) advertising (the Hoover advert), comic strips (mounted on the wall instead of a painting), muscle men and pin-up girls. These are arranged as a room - an environment that completely encloses its inhabitants, so despite its humorous tone, the work presents them as potentially suffocating. This is most evident in Hamilton's use of a photo of a beach crowded with people for the room's carpet and one of Earth as the ceiling - as if mass culture, being the first universal culture ever known, threatens to homogenize people and whole societies into one seamless mass. At the same time the work is not determinedly hostile to mass culture. The presence of various technical innovations does not permit this - tape recorders, the coming of sound in cinema (the poster for The Jazz Singer) and labour saving devices, which seem to be welcomed since they are shown in their natural, logical locations. The tape recorder is on the floor; the poster on a wall outside; the Hoover on the stairs. By contrast, the less useful objects are presented in more disdainful, bizarre terms by placing them in unlikely situations - the comic on the wall (instead of a painting); the Ford badge, not on a car, but on a lampshade; and the giant lollipop held by the muscle-man. The pin-up girl is juxtaposed with a tin of ham - perhaps commenting on mass cultures tendency to treat women as commodities through glamourization and fetishization.

Richard Hamilton, Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?

Hamilton returned to this theme in works like 'She' (1958 - 61), the sceptical title of which is a clear reference to the perceived correspondence between femininity and commerce. A woman is shown alongside a fridge: the figure is highly stylized and almost geometrical; the fridge is depicted in pink, flesh-like tones and the de Koonong influenced style further blurs any distinction between them. Thus, the two things are merged together in a hybrid of machinery and the human form. In choosing to comment on adverts for so-called 'white goods' Hamilton identified ones that 'promoted the joys of consumerism through an equation with feminine sex appeal.' But, as 'Just what is it ….?' Indicated, it would be wrong to conclude that Hamilton was diametrically opposed to Blake's celebratory ethos. Like certain passages in the small collage, several of his larger works anticipate Americanization with optimism. For example, 'Homage a Chrysler Corp.'(1957) and 'Hers is a ….. situation' celebrate the elan and panache of American car designs - the so-called 'Vehicles of Desire'. The very title of 'Homage' has been read as an ironic announcement that he was turning away from French art practice, abandoning Paris as the cultural capital.

Richard Hamilton, Homage a Chrysler Corp (1957)

At this point it may be objected that these examples of Hamilton's work - in some instances critical, in others celebratory - demonstrate the same ambiguity towards US mass culture as does American pop. But while it is true that he is aligned neither with Blake nor his anti-American contemporaries, Hamilton does not resort to the 'No comment' style of American pop. Each of these works is a 'sociological exercise': they assess the various effects of this new visual culture. They comment on the way mass culture works, something which could scarcely be attempted except from the detached viewpoint common to British artists but denied to American ones. The effects of mass culture were best observed from outside an environment it was busy creating rather than from inside one already established. Other members of the Independent Group embarked on this programme. Lawrence Alloway (to whom the term 'pop art' is often attributed) wrote: 'We assumed an anthropological definition of culture in which all types of human activity were the object of aesthetic judgement and attention.' Similarly Eduardo Paolozzi's scrap book collages were concerned with 'the interplay of technology and man.'

While some British pop artists were less enthusiastic about the influx of American culture than others, they all shared the belief in the 'multi-evocative imagery' it represented and saw how it could transform Britain's austere visual culture, something which could only be progressive.

One possible reason for American pop's reluctance to be committal is that its aesthetic ran anti-parallel to that of Abstract Expressionism, which had been the favoured mode of art practice for the previous two decades. Exemplified by Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, Abstract Expressionism used huge canvasses intended to enclose the spectator, facilitating a deep contemplation of their sublime grandeur. Hand in hand with this went the notion of self expression of the artist in a series of violent gestures that simulated his intensity of feeling.

This was the climate that American pop reacted against and it propelled American artists in a different direction to that of their British counterparts. Livingstone observed how the style had become 'entrenched as a new mode of academicism.' In the view of pop artists Abstract Expressionism had become stationary, safe and its practitioners self-indulgent. It was 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings' but failed to communicate with the spectator. Consequently pop art gravitated away from Expressionist intensity of feeling and became deliberately banal and unemotional. At the risk of making generalizations US pop tended to be less subtle, opting instead for the visual punch seen in advertising. This found visual outlet in its use of hard edges; strong simple colouring in large areas, commercial techniques and a preference for centralized composition. Lichtenstein's comic paintings use each of these 3 stylistic features. They are composed mainly of black, white and the primary pigments. To further drain his works of emotional content he used Benday dots - the method of printing used in comic books. He added these to his compositions but using a perforated template and though he had to retouch them by hand, the method gave the impression his works were produced by mechanical, impersonal means. More intent on pursuing this angle was Andy Warhol, who himself had completed several works based on comic book imagery in his early career, but had abandoned the practice after judging Lichtenstein's to be superior. Warhol evolved a technique which involved executing a drawing by hand on a non-absorbent surface and then transferring it onto a porous paper. Eventually he discovered silk-screening, in which the canvas was treated with photochemicals and exposed to a projected image. This effectively removed the artist's hand completely and devalued the term original. With this method he was able to employ his 18 assistants (the boys and girls) at his studio, 'The Factory', to complete his pictures, and would often make little more contribution to the creative process than affixing his signature by means of a rubber stamp. There was no longer any question of self expression on the part of the artist and his subject matter changed accordingly. Gone were all the images that had held some relevance to him - Dick Tracy, shoes, and those dealing with anxieties about personal appearance such as 'Before and After' and 'Ings' (both 1960), all of which tended to be hand drawn. Instead he concentrated on packaging, choosing the most innocuous and universal ones he could find. Johns had followed this practice too in his works 'Painted Bronze' (1960) and 'Painted Bronze II' (1964). But like his flag and target paintings - he had executed these in a visual language derived from Abstract Expressionism - leaving pointedly inflections of the brush evident in his compositions. Warhol's Disaster series, including his coloured car crash electric chair pictures used repetition of the same image. The resulting mechanical precision had a similar effect to Lichtenstein's isolation of images - showing how an image becomes meaningless when removed of its context. Warhol had in fact expressed the desire to be a machine.

Andy Warhol, Before and After

Roy Lichtenstein, Good Morning, Darling

In general terms it has been noted that American pop exhibits a preference for abstraction, while British pop is relatively figurative. This may be attributed to 'this tendency of the British to modify ideas to assimilate prudently' and it has been argued that this is the reason British pop does not possess the 'density and rigour' of American pop. British pop is understood as occurring in 3 phases. The first involved the Independent Group and Peter Blake: the second revolved around the Royal College of Art and ……… such as Richard Smith, Roger Coleman and Blake. The third emerged at the 'Young Contempories' exhibition of 1961 and was brought about by Royal College art students Patrick Caulfield, David Hockney, Allen Jones and R.B. Kitaj to name a few. Critics arguing that British pop is fundamentally more figurative than American use as their justification the fact that the first and last of these phases were indeed predominately figurative. The second tended towards abstraction and it was during the period of its fruition that British pop reached the most consummate affinity with that of America. At other times, the figurative tendency facilitated the expression of a narrative and anecdotal quality (e.g. Hamilton) which was a result of viewing mass- cultural artefacts as exotic and alien. Kitaj was an American artist studying at the RCA and was influenced by Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg is acknowledged as a precursor of pop rather than a pop artist proper to the extent of Warhol, Oldenberg etc. But Kitaj carried Rauschenberg's influence to his colleagues at RCA. A result of this is the adoption of an expressive, frantic and violent technique and the use of charts and grid patterns reminiscent of Rauschenberg's 'Bed' (1955) and 'Charlene' (1954) respectively. An example of the use of the former is Hockney's 'Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style' (1961) which is in marked contrast to American pop's treatment of packaging. Examples of the latter are Joe Tilson's 'A - Z Box of Friends and Family' (1963) and Kitaj's own 'Erasmus Variations' (1958) among others. … has attributed this bias in British pop towards tidiness and comfort to a 'pastoral fantasy' remaining a vital part of middle class life. He remarked that the countryside was neatly formed and controlled and therefore influenced Tilson's work (who moved from London to rural Wiltshire) and Blake's (who died in a village near Bath).

David Hockney, Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style (1961)

Thomas Crow has identified a further characteristic among US artists - a habitual conjunction between their work and the notion of childhood. For the early pop artist this meant the 30's and 40's, and there are numerous instances in which they seem pre- occupied with this era. Warhol made references to Dick Tracy and Popeye, Lichtenstein to Popeye and Mickey Mouse. Even Warhol's soup cans are interpreted as conveying a nostalgia for his Depression era childhood. Oldenberg is quoted as saying 'All this kind of stuff was at its highpoint in the forties … we all grew up with this, and we liked it so much that our love for it eventually interfered with our desire to be fine artists.' As Crow pointed out this statement does not take into account Oldenberg's 'The Store' and 'The Street', and while his argument does highlight a consistent feature of American pop, it falls short of identifying a determined point of departure from that of Britain due to notable exceptions. For example, such a nostalgia for one's childhood may be observed in Blake's work: 'Toy Shop' uses objects from his childhood, rather than contemporary mass-produced articles; in 'Children reading Comics', the comics in question are those of his youth. Such an exception highlights the danger of making sharp distinctions in art history, and the need to speak in general terms when faced with such a wide area of investigation.

In conclusion, the first and most obvious difference is that British pop makes use of a foreign culture. American pop uses its own. The proposal is that this situation will inevitably lead British artists to work in a critical manner, to take a stand in relation to mass culture, and to demonstrate a reluctance to commit to it, a need to modify its ideas. Conversely, American artists can operate with a neutrality and detachment that those in Britain never could. If it is accepted that this is the result of the existing situation, then the argument that differences in tonal and formal qualities derive from this fundamental difference is a convincing one. But, since pop's history has been a long one and its representatives are so varied, such an analysis should be exercised with caution, and one should be aware that clear distinctions are problematic because exceptions can always be found.


Hebdige, Dick, Hiding in the Light (First published by Routledge, 1988, London)

Lippard, Lucy R., Pop Art (First published in Great Britain by Thames and Hudson Ltd., London in 1966. 3rd edition (revised) 1970)

Livingstone, Marco Pop Art: a continuing history (First published in 1990 by Thames and Hudson Ltd., London)

Harrison, Charles and Wood, paul (eds.) Art in Theory: 1900-1990 an anthology of changing ideas (First published in 1992 by Blackwell Publishers Ltd., Oxford. Reprinted 1998)

Crow, Thomas, 'The Children's Hour' in Artforum vol. 30 Dec. 91 pp84-88

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Comments (13)

Well researched and informative...entertaining too. Thanks for sharing.

Interesting read... I'm just curious, is "pop culture" strictly confined to American mass culture? And why so? What about J-pop (Japanese pop), etc? I'm not an art school grad or big art aficionado, so I'm pretty ignorant (but still pretty curious) about these things...

I will have to revisit this article tomorrow. I had to take a detour and look up Hamilton and I went on a rabbit trail and stopped by Duchamp and Rauchenberg.

Ranked #1 in Art & Art History

Pop culture is certainly not restricted to American mass culture, and Japanese pop culture is a fascinating subject, altjough I've never really studied it. This article is focussed the Pop Art movement of the 1950s and 60s, and asks how British and American artists responded to American mass culture, which was a key debate of the time. I think that the Japanese influence on Western culture really began in the 1970s and 80s and has continued to gather pace since then.

I am afraid I am not into this kind of art, I don't even see it as art. My husband is an artist and he does not care for it much either.

Ranked #1 in Art & Art History

Well, I think Rauschenberg was the best among these figures, but I haven't given him much discussion in the text. With artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein I agree with you, although I do feel that the apparent banality of their work is central to the point they're making. Warhol, for example, demonstrated that imagery can lose their meaning when they are endlessly reproduced. So I would say that they made one important point, and then remade it and remade it . . .

haaaahaaaa :) indeed. I have often been intrigued by Warhol's multi-prints of the electric chair and auto crashes and the commentary that makes.

A great article written in a masterly manner. Congratulations, Michael, you have captured the essence of the whole.

Ranked #1 in Art & Art History

Thanks, Francois, and to everyone for your kind words. Very much appreciated.

Are you by chance writing a theory and crit text book? I'd like to know if you are or if you have. Would love to add it to my library.

The 50s and the 60s really are interesting times, with a lot of paradigm shifts going on around the world, even in the emergence of the Pop Art movement. Thanks for clearing that up Michael!

Ranked #1 in Art & Art History

Thanks for your question, Judith. I haven't published any work on theory and to be honest I'm not much of a theoretician - most of my research is empirical. I've published in journals like 'Visual Culture in Britain' and 'Durham Archaeological Journal', as well as a few things for the Victoria County History. However, all of my published work is on architectural history (my real subject). I'm not good enough to publish on art history. Thanks to everyone for your kind words.

Oh I would love to see an article on Gaudi (spelling?)