Pop art: Definition , characteristics and history

Roy Lichtenstein Pop art cartoon

In this post we will explain what is pop art , describe 12 characteristics of pop art , along with its history and featured artist .

Art has been one of the methods of expression of the human being for millennia. Throughout history, many different styles have emerged that have characterized the stages of history, such as romanticism, baroque or impressionism. The art has undergone various modifications over time. Currently, many artists criticize or reflect social situations through their works, and one of the most popular artistic movements in this regard in recent decades has been pop art.

The works of pop art were characterized by reflecting all aspects of life and popular culture of the moment . It was a revolutionary artistic movement that expressed the reality of the time. Given its peculiarities, we are now going to see what it consists of, what its main characteristics are and which artists stood out.


What is pop art

Pop art is a movement that emerged in the late 1950s in England and later in the 1960s in the United States . Its heyday lasted approximately until the 1980s. During this time, the works created within this movement expressed a social critique of the reality that was being experienced at that time. At that time, society stood out mainly for consumerism: everything revolved around buying and selling massively.

At that time, pop art artists made use of various materials, and used any object that was representative of consumerism. For example, they used posters, advertising items, cans, bottles, etc. In many of his works, a repetitive and even saturating effect is observed . These aspects reflect the anesthetic effect of advertising and consumption in our lives, moving us away from the important aspects, to trick us into the merely banal.

At first glance, it may seem like a simple type of movement. However, it consists of an art that has a lot of knowledge about the functioning of society. He intends to capture the reality of society through his works, to create awareness in people .


Characteristics of pop art

The main characteristic of this movement was to select popular objects or images of the moment and take them out of their context . After that, through different techniques, they were isolated or combined with other elements. In this way, the artists managed to highlight or focus on some banal aspect or cultural trait of the time.

The works reflected a criticism of society, characterized by consumerism, the importance of image, materialism and fashion. Through satire and irony, the artists question the principles and values ??that stand out in society at that time.


1.- Decontextualization

Robert Rauschenberg: Retroactive I, oil and silkscreen on canvas.1964.
Robert Rauschenberg: Retroactive I, oil and silkscreen on canvas.1964.

One of the strategies of pop art was to borrow objects and decontextualize them. For example, taking a famous painting or photograph out of its context, intervening and transforming it into a work or a new work. The Dadaists had done something similar with their ready-made technique since Marcel Duchamp created his famous Fountain of Him: an intervened urinal with the artist’s signature, under the pseudonym R. Mutt, and which was presented as a museum work.

2. If there is a kind art that does not enter into the horrors of humanity, this is pop art

The fifties were soon over and the bad days were over. The general population could enjoy previously unimaginable goods and services. The economy was growing nonstop and everything around gave the feeling of prosperity (and it was indeed). In this context, pop art or pop art was born in the artistic circle of New York. Nothing in these works (in principle) reminds us of the big or small problems of humanity. Everything in them is daily, frequent, almost supermarket. And it is also represented in such a relaxed way that it is difficult to find a similar parallel in the history of art.

3.  Pop art is not understood without the takeoff of the consumer society

In these works there are couples in the car, girls happily bathing at home, cans of soup ready to be consumed, bottles of Coca-Cola that accompany the leisure of young people… Pop art is the first representation of the consumer society, from the initial one, from which he entered with joy (because the precedent was scarcity) in the purchasing habits of all kinds of goods and services. And these are represented in a casual way and without asking many questions. That would come later with other aesthetics that extend into the 21st century.


4. One of the most striking characteristics of pop art is its relationship with advertising

And if something is inherent to the consumer society, this is its accompaniment of advertising. So much so that you can hardly understand one without the other. Most pop art artists had started in the world of advertising communication from different fields. Some painted billboards with advertisements, others had organized campaigns or had designed labels or the very format of the products to be advertised. The fact is that advertising and its rules are present in these works. It is so evident that it is noticeable even with the naked eye with works in which typography calls are frequent, flat and vibrant colors, marked lines, the tendency to minimalism so that nothing distracts attention from the main object.

5. The characters and icons of the time are usually protagonists of these works

Because if there is a taste for reproducing the typical objects of an era (from clothes to kitchenware) there is also a love for the characters of the time. In this sense, we can frame the mythical and renowned paintings by Andy Warhol (one of his greatest representatives) in which M. Monroe or Mao are the protagonists.

6. Another of the characteristics of pop art or pop art is its relationship with the comic

Other artists, such as Roy Lichtenstein, show a preference for comic aesthetics so obvious that it does not even require further clarification. They are works in which we seem to witness vignettes with their flat colors, their marked lines and even the “sandwiches” with the typography of the characters. The popular culture of comics or entertainment magazines enters the “high art” forever blurring the boundaries between one and the other. At the same time, as always happens with any cultural manifestation, it cannot fail to reflect the ways of its time.

7. Pop art uses the techniques and methods of traditional graphic arts

Although there is use of canvas or oil, this is totally relegated in favor of techniques that until then had been used for graphic arts and their modes of reproduction.

8. It was not a homogeneous group and the artistic epicenter was in New York

Up to this point, the late 1950s and early 1970s, when pop art developed, artists had been grouped together. The epicenter was usually Paris where they met in their cafes or meeting places. Manifestos were made there or the most diverse works were launched. Dadaism or Fauvism , to give just two names, worked with these premises. Now all that blows up. Each artist produces alone, without groups and without manifestos, although it is theorized later. And the artistic epicenter is lost, forever, from Paris. It will no longer be the place where artists of all kinds go. This one has moved to Skyscraper City.

9. One of the most peculiar characteristics of pop art is that the general public liked it more than the so-called professionals.

And criticism was the last to join the new wave. Perhaps for the first time in history, a new way of making art reaches collectors and even the general public earlier (in the broad sense of the term) than gallery owners. As if this were not enough, critics lagged behind, as if out of control with the new way of creating.

10. There is a taste for the written word that is incorporated into the work

It probably comes from the influence of comics or light consumer and light-themed magazines. The word, the “sandwiches”, the typography, the written expressions are part of the work together with the images. And this is one of the characteristics of pop art that connects or is related to the visual poetry that begins to be generated from the decade of the sixties and that will seek to break down the existing frontiers and barriers between literature and the plastic arts.

11. Extreme color and repetition is another of the characteristics of pop art

The series, the repetition, the points that form the figures, the elimination of any shadow and/or perspective, the flat or bright colors are characteristics of the best-known pop art.

In addition, pop art emphasizes the viewer, the recipient of the message who, with his gaze, modifies what is meant. They hardly have to make an effort to reach the general public. Taste and love are produced almost immediately, elevating many of its creators to fame and wealth.

12. Humor

May Wilson: Ridiculous Portrait . From the series Ridiculous Portraits . Mixed technique. 1965-1972.
May Wilson: Ridiculous Portrait . From the series Ridiculous Portraits . Mixed technique. 1965-1972.

As it did not claim to be an intellectual art, pop art was also a movement full of humor and complicit winks at the viewer.

Far from the infatuated postures of the great theoreticians and intellectuals of the medium, pop artists ironized and laughed at the surrounding order. Perhaps it was a different way of criticizing.


Pop art background

The influences of pop art can be found in currents such as Dadaism, which emerged in the first wave of avant-garde movements. It was a cultural movement that questioned the positivist rational order and that, particularly in painting, stood out for having proposed new techniques such as the ready-made , a technique that consisted of taking everyday objects, intervening in them and transforming them into objects suitable for exhibition. in a museum, without hiding its characteristics or its origin.

Closer in time, a fundamental direct promoter was the Independent Group, known by the acronym of its name in English IG (Independent Group).

The IG emerged in 1952 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London and was active until 1955. During this period Britain, like other fully industrialized countries in Europe, was experiencing the growth of a distinct urban popular culture, following rationing and austerity brought about by the Second World War.

Many artists participated in this group. However, it was the Italian Edouardo Paolozzi who became a founding reference in pop art after the first IG session. In this, Paolozzi projected various collages he had made from magazines through an opaque projector. The first image was the collage I was a Rich Man’s Plaything , in which the word “pop” is used for the first time, from which the movement would take its name.

In this context, the IG discussed for the first time in the art world the problem of mass culture and its implications for the definition of culture as it was conceived until then. For them, this also forced them to rethink the current notion of art.

At the same time, crucial changes were taking place in the United States in the world of culture, which broke with everything imagined up to that time, without the direction of those impulses being clearly discernible.

In this sense, a vitally important precedent for pop art was the famous work 4’33”, by the composer John Milton Cage. This work consisted of the execution of a score with a duration of 4 minutes and 33 seconds, whose only written indication was the word “tacet” (silence).

According to the interpretation of some, Cage’s proposal was aimed at the perception of the environmental noise produced by the public as a musical work of art. Without a doubt, it was an absolute revolution, where music had taken the lead in an unexpected way, questioning the fundamental matter of his discipline. What would the plastic arts do?

To begin with, they would react against the intellectualization of art and the evasive character of established artists in the face of the invasive contemporary reality, traits that this generation attributed especially to the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock. Thus, the new generation of artists would appropriate Cage’s idea: to eliminate the distance between art and life. Let’s see why and what they did.

Why and for what was pop art born?

The characteristics of pop art that we have exposed show that this movement had a deep meaning, contrary to the sentences that accuse it of being superficial.

This movement can be seen as an art without compromise, but sometimes this statement can be unfair. It is true that it has a strong visual charge, it is true that it is not shocked by the symbols of mass culture, but there is also a meaning behind it.

Keith Haring: Untitled, from the Andy Mouse portfolio. Serigraphy on paper. 1986.
Keith Haring: Untitled, from the Andy Mouse portfolio. Serigraphy on paper. 1986.

In the very particular case of US artists, they were interested in investigating the ultimate essence of North Americanism in the midst of this turn of the screws that meant the transition to mass society. Along with this, in some way they also tried to rediscover the figurative painting that abstract expressionism had hidden behind the wardrobe.

But in general terms, pop artists from all over the world were clear that irony allowed them to show that materialism and vulgarity participated in the hegemonic order that the mass field had already established between 1950 and 1970.

At the same time, they recognized that the new symbols had a clear and continuous manifestation of cultural values ??in transformation, which often allowed them to observe the new icons without making value judgments.

In a broad sense, through the incorporation of the symbols of the consumer society, pop art not only expanded the repertoire of iconographic themes of art, but also established a position in the face of two things: the reorganization of the consumer society and the refusal of intellectual elites to acknowledge that this phenomenon cut across the culture.

Thus, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Mao Tse Tung, Superman or Batman were as “cultural” and worthy of attention for their contemporary world as the repertoire of Aphrodites, Venus, Adonis, Apollos, virgins, saints, water carriers, shepherds, landscapes, kings and personalities for the sixteenth century.

Featured Pop art artists

Andrew Warhol (1928-1987)

He was an important North American plastic artist, illustrator and filmmaker. He was responsible for applying marketing and advertising principles to the realm of art. With this, he paved the way for the development of pop art.

He coined one of the most famous phrases in the history of art, which today is fulfilled thanks to new information technologies: “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” Among his most outstanding works we can mention the Campbell’s Soup Cans series and the screen-printed portraits of public figures such as Marylin Monroe, Mao Tse Tung and himself.


Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)

Painter, graphic artist and sculptor. He applied the comic technique to conventional plastic arts, thus achieving recognition of the new visual culture in the art world. He also used other techniques such as serigraphy and collage . Particularly famous are his works From Him The Kiss and Wham!.

Robert Rauchenberg (1925-2008)

He began his career as a painter under the aegis of abstract expressionism, but halfway through his life he began to explore the language and possibilities of pop art, until he became one of its most important representatives. He stood out with the combination of unusual materials in the plastic arts, which could even involve combining painting with sculpture, photography, engraving and performance . This technique became known as combines . Among his most famous works are: the Factum series and the Retroactive series .

Jasper Johns (1930)

He is an American plastic artist in which both the elements of pop art and abstract expressionism, minimalism and neo-dadaism are visible. His favorite technique has been encaustic. In a chapter of The Simpsons called “Mom and Pop Art” or “The art of dad and mom” (in its Spanish-American translation), Jasper Johns appears as one of the artists with whom Homer befriends. At the end of the chapter, he is seen stealing materials for his works. Among his best-known pieces we can mention Three Flags and Diana with Four Faces .

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