How Pop Became Political for Artists Across the Americas
AUSTIN, Texas — National leaders are often commemorated in portraits, but not like this. Simon Bolívar and George Washington — iconic figures in Colombia and the United States — look less than mighty in Beatriz González’s and Eric Avery’s pictures of them. Painted during the years of extreme political and social turbulence known as “La Violencia,” González’s “Apuntes para la historia extensa, continuación (Notes for an Extensive History, Continuation)” (1968) depicts the South American hero with dull features and noxious, Pepto Bismol pink skin. And Avery’s linocut “The New Face of Liberty” (1983), created amid the country’s AIDS crisis, covers a found image of the first US president with a scratchy skeleton.
Both artists used the bold colors, figuration, and appropriated imagery of Pop Art, but with a biting political message. Their work is what the Chilean curator Soeldad García termed “Pop crítico,” or critical Pop. A new exhibition co-curated by Vanessa Davidson and Carter Foster, Pop Crítico/Political Pop: Expressive Figuration in the Americas, 1960s-1980s at the Blanton Museum of Art, explores the ways that artists across the Americas employed Pop’s playful, ironic language to express their critical consciousness.
“Pop art began in earnest in the United States in the early 1960s, and in Latin America in the mid-1960s,” Davidson told Hyperallergic in a recent email. The capitalist consumer culture that inspired US artists was less prevalent in Latin America, but both groups applied Pop aesthetics to weighty issues. “US artists used it to expose racism, voice anti-war sentiment, or call attention to the incipient AIDS crisis,” Foster said by email. “In Latin America, artists confronted endemic social and economic inequality, corruption, and state-sponsored repression and torture under military dictatorships.”
For those under violent regimes, Pop offered a less obvious means of leveling critique. Antonio Berni’s collage painting “Ley marcial o le dictateur (Martial Law or The Dictator)” (1964) was created amid a string of Argentine military dictatorships. In the piece, a mustachioed military man made from bits of plastic, tap shoe tips, cardboard, and other throwaways appears inside a TV-like frame beside a boxed text reading “LEY MARCIAL,” or “MARTIAL LAW,” as if he’s announcing the policy on a news broadcast. The figure’s junk materials and cartoonish face suggest that military leaders like this one are, in themselves, useless hunks of trash.
In the US, artists responded to the developing Civil Rights, feminist, and other social movements with Pop. In Barbara Jones-Hogu’s screen prints “Nation Time” (1970) and “Land Where My Father Died” (1968), the US flag is reconfigured into swirling and brick-like designs that fly over Black demonstrators who march and raise their fists. May Stevens’s screen print “Big Daddy with Hats” (1971) stemmed from her opposition to the Vietnam War and to the authoritarianism and racism of her father’s generation. Both artists’ arguments for racial justice in civil life and policing continue to be urgent today. But as the exhibition shows, Pop is an artistic language that spans borders and time.
Pop Crítico/Political Pop: Expressive Figuration in the Americas, 1960s-1980s continues at the Blanton Museum of Art (200 East Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard, Austin, Texas) through January 16, 2022. The exhibition was co-curated by Vanessa Davidson and Carter Foster.