Not even the Vietnam War and the Cuban missile crisis could inspire Pop artists to more than empty gestures.
Source: The Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk), by Laura CummingPop Art and Politics in the Sixties
Wolverhampton Art Gallery, until 25 February
This is a highly provocative show pretending to be an innocent entertainment. It looks like the cultural celebration of an era, complete with Dylan and the Doors on the soundtrack and a Hendrix coat for kids to try on, but it is, in fact, slyly asking what Pop really made of the Sixties.
The title, Pop Art and Politics in the Sixties, is pointedly counterintuitive for a start. Does anyone go to Pop for the politics any more? In love with ad-mass culture and all things American, Pop's biggest shocks were to do with presenting both as a new kind of art, not issuing dark warnings to the President. Naturally, there were exceptions and Wolverhampton Art Gallery, amazingly, has managed to pull not a few from its own remarkable collection of Pop.
You peer into Warhol's Birmingham Race Riot from 1964, knowing what's coming, but still shocked to see the trained dogs ravening in the chaos. Larry Rivers's portfolio of prints, Boston Massacre, draws analogies between the British forces mowing down Americans in the 18th century and American forces mowing down the North Vietnamese. The portfolio is essentially a scrapbook full of cutout figures vividly transposed and rearranged - one soldier looking much like another when armed - and seems the more unnerving for appearing so down home with the paste and scissors.
Wolverhampton even has a silk-screen variation on James Rosenquist's F-111, the multipanel anti-Vietnam War mural that caused such a sensation when the Metropolitan Museum first showed it in the Sixties. In this version, the death machine hurtles through an even greater succession of commercial signs of the times: Firestone tyres, tinned spaghetti, the newest overhead hairdryer whose cone evokes the tip of a long-range missile and so forth. The piece still screams at full force its horror at the idea of the arms trade as powerfully good for local business.
From the Imperial War Museum, Wolverhampton Art Gallery has borrowed a charred effigy by that most original and underrated British artist Colin Self, which twinkles like new asphalt on the floor: a woman who had been sunbathing when the bomb fell on Hiroshima, one melted eyeball turned hard and black as basalt.
Like many artists, Self was paralysed with horror by the Cuban missile crisis and astounded that the supposed solution to Hiroshima was the accumulation of nuclear weapons by both sides. But he persisted where others gave up. His pen and ink drawings of the survivors of Hiroshima carry a terrible force; not least because the paper, drying after the ink, puckers like a scorched epidermis. British Pop artists had the advantage of distance and it is touching to see that Gerald Laing's two-faced monster, a three-dimensional illusion that shows Khrushchev from one side and Kennedy from the other but merges both when seen front-on, was made during the missile crisis. But what to do in a crisis is the great issue here: how to speak of politics, how to make an art, to paraphrase Claes Oldenburg, that doesn't just sit on its ass in the museum.
The handpainted Pop in this show tries its damnedest to say something more. There are cumbersome allegories featuring gunboats, fallout shelters and CND symbols; there are bullet holes through posters of Martin Luther King. Joe Tilson, now RA, produced some issues of The Bela Lugosi Journal in which horror films were crudely conflated with horror politics (American) and issued screenprints of Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh as a lover of children and birds.
You had to be there, as they say, but it is not obvious that Tilson was doing more than redistributing images that already filled the press, and he soon gave up on the politics. 'Art,' he is quoted as saying, 'cannot help but anaesthetise the experience and distance it from reality.' To counter which, one might cite pretty much the entire career of Goya.
But it was a quandary well expressed in Richard Hamilton's Kent State from 1970, in which you can just about make out a corpse or at least a lifeless arm in a muzzy screenprint the shape of a TV screen; a shot taken straight from television. Hamilton set up a camera to shoot the news coverage of students gunned down at Kent State because it was an event too serious 'to submit to arty treatment'.
So Pop capitulates before the media and replicates what it sees there without comment. Did it help to show this print in art galleries, as the artist hoped? Not then, but quite possibly now, almost 40 years later, when it has become both a history painting of sorts and an example of Pop's impotent aspirations, sitting on its ass in a museum.