LOWRY HILL — “International Pop” at the Walker Art Center is a rarity among major museum exhibitions, a heaping plate of kale-salad scholarship with the sparkly sweet appeal of Coca-Cola.
For many, it will be a head-snapping reintroduction to the Pop Art they thought they knew, taking viewers far beyond Andy Warhol’s soup cans and Roy Lichtenstein’s blown-up comic book panels. Art historians are claiming new territories for Pop, and curators Darsie Alexander and Bartholomew Ryan lead an exhilarating expedition into this changing landscape.
“We were up against a huge history,” Alexander said, describing Pop as “one of the most recognizable … expressions of postwar art” born during “one of the most analyzed, critiqued moments of our history.” It produced some of the most iconic images of 20th century art, but the true story of Pop became obscured by its wide appeal and familiarity.
In other words, it’s hard to see the forest for the “Spoonbridge and Cherry” sitting right there in the middle of it.
Pop was born in mid-’50s Britain and quickly spread to the U.S. during a period of swaggering prosperity for both countries. The emergence of mass media and consumer culture created a new common visual language, and Pop’s special alchemy is to transform that stuff that flickers across our field of vision — brand logos and cartoons, magazine ads and celebrity gossip rags — into art.
It’s clear now Pop reverberated around the world, piercing the Iron Curtain and influencing dissidents living under dictatorial South American regimes. This survey, featuring 130 artists from 20 countries, demonstrates how the boundaries of Pop are being redrawn.
“Many artists didn’t want, actually, initially, to be in a show about Pop” because of how narrowly Pop had been defined, said Alexander, who left the Walker last year to head the Katonah Museum of Art in New York. Ryan said the two “had to persuade a lot of people to be in this show,” convincing the artists they took a bigger, “more capacious” view of Pop.
The two bring in artists like Cildo Meireles, a Brazilian whose work demonstrates how removing Pop iconography from the context of prosperous, democratic societies changes its meaning. Meireles hid subversive messages inside reusable glass Coca-Cola bottles, including instructions for a Molotov cocktail, that would be revealed only after the bottles were refilled with brown soda.
“Repression Again — Here is the Consequence,” by another Brazilian, Antonio Manuel, is a series of five Warhol-style screen-printed canvases, each reproducing newspaper photos and stories of police clashing with student protestors. It dates from 1968, four years after Brazil’s military took over the government in a coup. Each of the canvases is hidden behind black drape, and viewers expose the images by pulling on a rope, as if pulling up a curtain on the dictatorship.
Traditional Pop could seem placid and apolitical, provoking responses from artists like Paul Thek, who flipped one of Warhol’s Brillo boxes on its side and filled it with a wax model of rotting viscera. Like some others in the exhibition, Thek’s work intersected with Pop only to critique it.
Postwar abundance and the new culture of consumerism that lapped it up inspired much Pop art, but it could also take on “sinister” qualities, Ryan noted. Inspired by color magazine advertising, “Foodscape,” by the Icelandic painter Erró, is an avalanche of carved hams, Jello molds and cheese platters.
Living on the border between the free West and Communist East during the Cold War, the Capitalist Realists of Germany created work that was more political and also more skeptical of western pop culture, exemplified by the cool, photo-referenced paintings of Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. By contrast, when refracted through a Japanese society still recovering from the trauma of World War II, Pop’s exuberance seems amplified, with artists like Tadanori Yokoo and Keiichi Tanaami drawing inspiration from comics and the burgeoning psychedelic culture of the ’60s.
“International Pop” is a fitting show for the Walker’s 75th-anniversary year. Executive Director Olga Viso described “International Pop” as “resonant” with the museum’s history, noting that the Pop era began not long after the Walker shifted its focus to contemporary art.
The film program that accompanies the exhibition is an extra treat for Walker patrons. The free, in-gallery showings of include everything from shorts by Warhol, Yokoo and the British filmmaker Jeff Keen to William Klein’s “Mr. Freedom,” a zany, feature-length sneer at 1960s American foreign policy, and Nagisa Oshima’s rarely screened “Band of Ninja,” shot directly from the pages of a classic manga by Sampei Shirato.
When: Through Aug. 29
Where: Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave.
Info: walkerart.org, 375-7600