The New York Theory

Although Pop Art is a relatively young movement, art historians argue about how and where it began. I think all their theories have some merit so I want to cover the most prevalent ones in my posts and have you decide which one you agree with. I’m starting with the first theory I encountered; that Pop Art began in New York City. I’ve settled for the “New York Theory” since it doesn’t have a name yet.

Leading up to the mid 50s, Abstract Expressionism was the dominant art form but many people struggled to understand it. If you’re unfamiliar with that movement, it’s the kind of art that would make a skeptic say, “My five-year old could paint that.” Then, according to this theory, in 1955 Robert Rauchenburg created a multimedia piece called, The Bed, that opened the public to new views of art. 

The Bed was part quilt, part Expressionist painting and left critics confused. It wasn’t completely abstract or completely realistic; it was a whole new brand of art. This lead many critics to fear America was reverting back to naturalism in art.

The Bed-Robert Rauchenburg 1955

Apparently they had nothing to worry about. Rauchenberg’s friend, and for some time, his lover, Jasper Johns, used this opportunity of combining the abstract and realistic to recreate familiar symbols such as American flags, maps, and targets. These symbols mean something to everyone but that something depends on her own experience. Depending on what way you look at it, the American flag, for example, could evoke feelings of pride and patriotism or feelings of fear and anger. Johns wanted to connect with the viewer and, unlike an Abstract Expressionist, did not want art to focus on his emotion. This way art became more about the viewer’s perception than his own.

Close up of Target with Four Faces- Jasper Johns 1955

“I don’t want my work to be an exposure of my feelings.”

Jasper Johns

The shift away from emotion became popular with other artists and led to a completely objective form of art: Pop Art. Instead of symbolic color, Pop Art featured items people used in everyday life such as beer cans, cars, and Coke bottles. Perhaps the most well known Pop Artists are Roy Lichtenstein (known for his comic-like art) and Andy Warhol (known for his celebrity portraits and Campbell’s Soup can). Warhol later became regarded as a “pure pop artist” for his objective portrayal of everyday objects that, according to him, “don’t really mean anything.”

Marilyn Monroe- Andy Warhol 1962

Pop Art expanded the definition of art to include people and life outside the galleries meaning those who couldn’t easily relate to Abstract Expressionism weren’t expected to intellectualize Pop Art.  According to this theory, it began with Johns and Rachenburg as a rebellion against established art. As we’ll soon discover, not everyone agrees…

Chipp, H. (1968). Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Famous Artists Annual: A Treasury of Contemporary Art. Westport, CT: Famous Artists Schools Inc.

Jason, H.W. (1986) History of Art.  New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams.

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