There is something particularly poignant about the passing of Lou Reed, co-founder of the Velvet Underground, coinciding with a major retrospective of Pop Art at London’s Barbican. The movement that was so attuned to the ephemera of the moment – and, for all its ironic posturing, celebrated being young, alive and materially comfortable – seems determined to grimly outlive all of its creators.
Londoners have been treated to a lot of Pop exhibitions recently, with major retrospectives already this year of Roy Lichtenstein and Patrick Caulfield But few have been as enjoyable and comprehensive as Pop Art Design. From displaying a reproduction of Richard Hamilton’s Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? (commonly considered the first ‘Pop’ work) through to exploring the influence of Warhol et al on Italian and German postwar design, this exhibition probes the relationship between Pop and mass consumerist society.
Reed’s indirect presence in the exhibition is itself instructive: when the Velvet Underground launched their debut album, it was only Andy Warhol’s star which garnered them any attention outside of a tiny New York milieu. Yet, fast-forward nearly 50 years, and who now would really care about Warhol’s banana if it hadn’t been associated with one of the defining rock albums of all time? There is an obvious irony in the fact that a movement which so scorned and mocked the notions of tradition and sought out the democratisation of artistic value has itself become a byword for contemporary art’s most self-indulgent, and value-free instincts.
This is something the exhibition’s curators are clearly aware of, but they seem hesitant to really explore it. It is difficult to escape the sense that this exhibition’s focus on Pop’s influence on design and manufacturing is borne out of an innate defensiveness over its inherent emptiness. Hey, it seems to suggest, Pop may have begun with a coolly cynical belief in art’s inability to change the world, but it helped design lots of cool stuff!
In fact, one of the deep pleasures of Pop Art Design – and surely underlying much of Pop’s continued popularity – is how sincere and wide-eyed its reaction to the wonders of consumerism now seems. Öyvind Fahlström’s famous ESSO-LSD has begotten a thousand banal ‘Enjoy Cocaine!’ t-shirts, but it’s worth remembering that its central joke, that LSD should be the mental fuel of America, is built on the tacit assumption of the wonders actual fuel has brought. Similarly, a diverting section on Pop’s obsession with containerisation reveals great subtleties about conflicting attitudes to postwar society’s attitudes to progress. The creation of space-age houses across the mid-West in the 1950s and 1960s spoke to an increasing privatisation of the modern citizen (sealing themselves off from society) yet also a preparation for the belief that we’ll one day be living on the moon.