Though the mammoth exhibition attempts to stress the movement's international dimension, it ultimately recognizes that Pop Art is as quintessentially American as Jasper Johns' U.S. flag one of the show's highlights and serves as both an affirmation and a critique of modern American values. The show focuses on the period from 1956 to 1968 that exuberant era between victory in World War II and defeat in Vietnam, between the bland complacency of the Eisenhower years and the twitchy paranoia of Nixon's divided nation. It was a time of prosperity and materialism that embraced such pop-cultural Meccas as Las Vegas and Disneyland, and engendered a cornucopia of brand-name goods and futuristic gadgets. The widespread use of plastics created sleek, brightly colored designs for even the most banal household items from can-openers and telephones to stereos and TVs while supermarkets, outsized billboards and suburban strip malls came to dominate the U.S. landscape.
But it was also a time of revolt against the conventionality of postwar America that obligatory wholesomeness captured in Malcolm Morley's Beach Scene, with its picture-perfect family frolicking on the sand while the father's eerily bestial smile hints at the dark underbelly of the American dream. As writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac raged against bourgeois conformism, and the nation's youth turned on to sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, the Pop Art movement provided the technicolor iconography of a full-fledged counterculture.
The new generation of artists painted what they saw, rejecting abstractions and bucolic panoramas in favor of the edgy cityscapes of the new age. The exhibit opens with a monumental oil and collage by American Tom Wesselmann depicting a towering six-pack of Royal Crown Cola, a fat loaf of Sunbeam bread and a can of Libby's beef stew obscuring a view of Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral. That jarring juxtaposition embodies a fundamental tenet of Pop: that the everyday artifacts of consumer society defined a new aesthetic, stretching traditional conceptions of appropriate subjects and blurring the distinction between high art and low.
There was beauty as well as provocation in this new aesthetic. William Klein's video installation, Broadway by Light, captures the kinetic grace of Times Square's dancing lights as reflected on the surface of passing cars and wet asphalt. Rudy Burckhardt's photograph of an enormous Coca-Cola billboard dwarfing pedestrians on the street below is a masterpiece of black and white composition. Nor did the pop generation shrink from taking on the most traditional of subjects. In Wesselmann's Great American Nude No. 54, a painted female form sprawls beside a 3-D radiator, a telephone and a table adorned with ice cream sundaes a reminder that this was the era of hedonism and sexual revolution, in which the human body also became a consumer object.
Humor is central to many of the works, often as a neo-surrealist celebration of the absurd. Edward Ruscha's can of Spam rocketing across a white canvas and Colin Self's Leopard-skin Nuclear Bomber No. 2 cannot fail to evoke a smile. Conversely, Roy Lichtenstein manages to take the humor out of the comic-book genre, reducing the style to its purely graphic elements.
But comedy is never far from tragedy: Bruce Conner's short film clips intersperse hilarious scenes of people falling off bicycles with newsreels of the airship Hindenburg burning and stacked bodies in a concentration camp. And tragedy, of course, emanates from Warhol's multiple images of Marilyn Monroe that are so emblematic of the Pop genre. Warhol incorporated tragedy more explicitly using the repeated, silk-screened image of a fatal auto accident in his Orange Car Crash, as if death, too, were a mass-produced consumer good.
With tunes by the Beatles, the Who and the Rolling Stones forming a ubiquitous soundtrack, "Les Années Pop" is not so much an art exhibition as what in the '60s was called a happening. The sheer three-dimensionality of it Christo's plastic-wrapped bicycle, César's compressed automobiles, Claes Oldenburg's Store with its huge floppy pie and ice-cream cone, the aluminum-foil recreation of Andy Warhol's Factory signals that this is a show to be experienced rather than just observed. Similarly, the inclusion of consumer products from Yves Saint Laurent's Mondrian dress to plastic radio bracelets and Star Trek-like chairs turns the exhibit into an exercise in pop-cultural archaeology, akin to opening a time capsule or poking around your mother's attic. The greatest irony, as this show demonstrates, is that an era whose credo was "forever young" now belongs to a quaint and nostalgic past.