It was all about the goodies, the girls and the games. Pop art, according to Lawrence Alloway, the critic who invented the term, is ”the use of popular art sources by fine artists: movie stills, science fiction, advertisements, game boards, heroes of the mass media”. Pop art swept like a cyclone over the art field in the early 1960′s as part of a world wide phenomenon. The critics were cool and aloof, but the public ate it up. The preoccupation with goodies, the deliberately banal, garish, slapdash, sometimes funny,occasionally satiric and near universal vulgarity captured the public’s imagination as part of an essential aesthetic experience. The collectors were panting and the cash registers were merrily ringing away as the fine line between art and artifact was challenged.
It was a stab at the art establishment and their reactionary ”cult of the precious object in the gilt frame” which was the principal foundation of the art game. Pop art was a reflection of the technological and consumerist age, the surge of middle class accumulation and initiation into a world of conspicuous consumption. Machine made mass produced and industrialized environments known as slob culture. Pop art represented the most extreme reaction against the moody interior dramas of the abstract expressionists who seemed to crumble under the weight of their own narcissism. For pop art was nothing if not exterior.
Leo Jensen was a former rodeo cowboy who seemed more interested in pure entertainment, than delivering a pointed message. Jensen called his works functional toys, presumably because the owner can play with them whenever they get tired of admiring them as sculptures; if that is the word to describe them, or perhaps more accurately as a kinetic installation. In fact, his work is situated in the niche between pop art and the authentically vernacualar world of the American folk tradition.
From Sidney Tillim’s ”Art Au Go-Go” which called Jensen the quintessential pop art example of the cultural mimesis of banality:”In more than a manner of speaking, Pop art [sic] not only typifies the spirit of this new era of “freedom,” but epitomizes its paradoxes. As a cultivated mimesis of banality (for it is not actually banal), Pop art recapitulates both America’s historical dependence upon and submission to cultivated precedent, and its hostility to it at the same time. By emptying the contents of a lowbrow variety store into art, Pop symbolizes a demand by American art for a kind of racial inimitability and an end to “art for art’s sake”… Thus in proposing reconstruction by a transfusion of “populist” taste, Pop infers the inevitable and probably lasting ambiguities of culture in a democracy.”
Roy Lichtenstein blow ups of soppy soap opera style comic strips were also gross magnifications of banal images. But unlike Jensen, he called into question the emptiness and phoniness of popular culture with all its seductiveness and threatening overtones. Most people got the point at the time, but asked the inevitable question of, is it art?, which Lichtenstein said is exactly what he wanted to provoke. Enough people thought enough of his work to make him one of the most successful of the pop artists, and one of the most controversial.