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The Pop Environment

on view until July 13, 2008


The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art is presenting an exciting new exhibition from the permanent collection entitled The Pop Environment, on view until July 13, 2008.

In the early 1960s, Pop artists began acknowledging and appropriating imagery from the commercial environment, thereby shattering the distinction between high and low culture. Artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Allan D'Arcangelo, Jim Dine, and Tom Wesselmann took their inspiration from comic books, advertisements, newspaper headlines, film stills, and popular magazines.

This eye-opening exhibition at the Brooks brings together diverse works, ranging from paintings and photographs to mixed media installations, which can all be linked to the Pop emphasis on looking beyond the confines of one's studio for inspiration and guidance.

Whether in Warhol's sage selection of press photographs, William Christenberry's documentation of signage on Beale Street, Marcos Lopez's fond portraits of vintage automobiles, or Jenny Holzer's commentary on the media and advertising, this exhibition underscores the success of the Pop artists in transforming the perception of the ordinary object to bring art to our everyday lives.

The Pop Environment was curated by Chief Curator Marina Pacini and Professor David McCarthy of Rhodes College.


Selected wall texts from the exhibition


Andy Warhol, generally considered the father of American Pop Art, produced his Death and Disaster screen paintings from 1962 to 1967. His canonical images in the series include car accidents, suicides, a mushroom cloud, civil rights riots, and Jackie Kennedy in Dallas (three examples of which are in the Brooks Collection). Among the most haunting of the series, however, are the electric chairs, which he completed as silk screens on both canvas and paper.
Critics disagree as to whether Warhol's art is noncommittal or political. Certainly capital punishment was one of the most hotly debated issues in the sixties. After his death, it was discovered that he collected images from World Wide Photo, a commercial photo archive. Exactly when he bought the images remains unclear, but all of the electric chair paintings and prints are based on a photograph that is labeled on the back: "Sing Sing's Death Chamber. January 13, 1953." The text goes on to note that this is the chair in which Julius and Ethel Rosenberg will be executed. This information makes it difficult to view the electric chairs as anything but a condemnation of governmental power.
In 1971, Warhol produced a portfolio of ten screen prints on paper. Much of the original photograph is cropped so that the door with the ominous Silence sign over it does not appear. Nonetheless, the empty room with the chair, restraining straps dramatically visible, remains a disturbing image. Although the vacant chair grimly awaits its next occupant, the overall effect of the isolated chair, repeated in Warhol's signature palette of Pop colors, is also highly decorative. It is this dramatic contrast between engaging visual form and controversial subject matter that fuels the debates concerning his intentions.
- by Marina Pacini, Chief Curator
(right: Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987), Electric Chair, 1971, Portfolio of ten silk screens, 232/270, 10 each measuring 35 1/8 x 47 7/8 inches, Signed: verso. Memphis Brooks Museum of Art Purchase)
Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein was known for his paintings, prints, and installations that re-contextualized imagery from mass culture. Reacting against Abstract Expressionism, Pop artists favored an objective approach to painting that was emotionally detached and removed evidence of the artist's hand from the work of art. Extracting images from popular culture and reconfiguring them into his work, Lichtenstein narrowed the distinction between fine and popular art. He adopted comic book imagery replicating the process and look of manufactured printed pulp through benday dots, vivid primary hues, text, speech balloons, and thick black lines.
By cropping and removing parts of the original comic strip composition, Lichtenstein was able to establish formal relationships based on balance and color. His controlled art-making process is often juxtaposed with an expressive or emotional moment; for example, aggression is overtly displayed in Sweet Dreams, Baby! Although the scene is comprised of two partial figures, the image captures a dynamic and violent moment. One man's punch, dramatically emphasized through arcing motion lines and the vibrant "POW!" in bright red capitals, knocks the other man's head out of the frame. The narrative sequence is suspended-it is unclear what led to the altercation or what will occur next. Lichtenstein's title offers an interesting double meaning, as "sweet dreams, baby" is traditionally an endearing phrase. In this particular context, however, it suggests a "farewell" to the man who was just hit.
- by Ana Vejzovic, former assistant curator
(right: Roy Lichtenstein (American, 1923-1997), Sweet Dreams, Baby! from the portfolio 11 Pop Artists, vol. II, 1965, Silk screen 137/200, 27 x 23 inches. Memphis Brooks Museum of Art)
In 1967, Robert McKnight, the director of the Brooks, wrote to Marisol asking her to create a Nativity for the museum. It was a logical request as Marisol was internationally recognized for her figural groupings, as exemplified by the high-profile commissions from Time magazine for portraits of Hugh Hefner and Bob Hope. Born of Venezuelan parents in Paris, and raised in the United States and Venezuela, she was well versed in the history of art as well as South American popular culture. Originally envisioned as a complete Nativity, the project ended with the three figures of the Holy Family.
Typical of Marisol's work, the figures are composed of both abstract and representational elements and a variety of different media that combine here to create a playful yet moving image of a traditional art historical subject. Mary and Joseph are formed from block-like wooden boxes simply painted with flat color. Mary's dress, covered with painted starbursts surrounded by collaged pieces of glass, places her within the tradition of highly decorative and ecstatic Latin American images of the Virgin. Both figures have cast plaster faces, hands, and feet. Marisol, who repeatedly used self-portraits in her work to explore the roles of women in society as well as her own identity, is the model for Mary. The Virgin's holiness is conveyed through multiple means: she floats above the ground, has a dazzling neon sun for a halo, is dressed in her traditional blue mantle, and has two left hands bearing rings symbolizing her marriage to Joseph and God. Her womb is a door that opens to expose a mirror in which all viewers can see themselves reflected as a part of the Holy Family. The importance of Jesus, the smallest figure in the scene, is signaled through the elaborate neon manger; the simplicity of his unpainted body, almost completely carved of one piece of wood, stands out against the rest of the brightly colored scene. Marisol blends materials associated with advertising and commerce, such as neon and Astroturf, with fine art conventions to produce a complex work that explores the role of women and religion in contemporary society.
- by Marina Pacini, Chief Curator
(right: Marisol (American, b. Paris, 1930), The Family, 1969, Mixed media: wood, plastic, neon, glass, 88 x 56 x 65 inches. Commissioned for Brooks Memorial Art Gallery through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and matching funding from the Memphis Arts Council, Brooks Fine Arts Foundation, and Brooks Art Gallery League)
William Christenberry is inextricably rooted to rural Alabama, a land of kudzu, red soil, farm buildings, churches, and roadside stores. Born in Tuscaloosa, he spent his childhood summers with his grandparents in nearby Hale County. He received his master's degree from the University of Alabama, taught at Memphis State University (today the University of Memphis), and currently teaches at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. Although he works in many media, including painting, sculpture, installation, and photography, his subject matter is exclusively southern, reflecting the geography, architecture, and cultural history of his birthplace.
Pivotal in his career was his discovery, in 1959, of James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), which included Walker Evans' photographs of the Hale County of Christenberry's childhood. He began to reevaluate his own photographs, which at the time served merely as a reference for his paintings. After showing his work to Evans and receiving encouragement, Christenberry began to pursue photography seriously.
The artist first photographed Cannon's Grocery in 1972 and emphasized its rural locale by including a glimpse of the surrounding field and the unpaved road. The image is small but powerful, with the store's vibrant complementary colors echoed in the blue sky and clay-colored soil. The linear qualities of the building are repeated through the landscape-the horizontal bands of the grass, the dirt road, and the horizon. Christenberry also makes sculptures replicating the rural structures of his Alabama childhood; these miniature-scale models evoke a sense of nostalgia, bringing to mind boyhood toys and playthings. He realistically re-creates the appearance of the original building materials and old signs, and even incorporates actual objects from the site, such as the bed of Hale County dirt. Paying close attention to minute details, he reproduces the small tattered advertisements hanging in the windows, the weathered paint of the building's exterior, and the old door worn from use. Through his artwork, he immortalizes Cannon's Grocery, a country store and former hub of rural activity, as a cultural icon reminiscent of an earlier time.
- by Karleen Gardner, Curator of Education
(right: William Christenberry (American, b. 1936), Cannon's Grocery, 1972, Wood, red soil, metal, Plexiglas, illustration board (building) 10 3/4 x 27 1/2 x 16 1/2 inches. Memphis Brooks Museum of Art)
(left:William Christenberry (American, b. 1936), Cannon's Grocery, 1972, Chromogenic coupler print, 3 1/4 x 4 7/8 inches. Memphis Brooks Museum of Art)


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