Home Magazine A Guide to Pop Art

Popular, Bold, Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky and a lot more: this is Pop Art, perhaps one of the most influential art movements of the 20th century. 

Related articles: Top 30 Pop Art Artists Jeff Koons and the Post-Pop Art Age

Emerged in reaction to mass culture, consumerism, and celebrity cult, Pop Art is an art movement that began in the 1950s and reached its peak in popularity throughout the 1960s. Pop artists incorporated everyday objects such as soup cans, comic strips as well as mass symbols like brands and celebrity icons into their work. The introduction of easily recognisable imagery spoke to the masses, reflecting the popular culture of the time. Pop artists refused to abide by conservative artistic standards, producing vibrant, bold and ironic compositions that challenged the elitist sentiment of modernism and strengthened the idea that art can draw from any source. The uniqueness of fine art was abandoned to be replaced by the appropriation and reproduction of popular images, pushing the boundaries of what it means to be an artist.


Roy Lichtenstein, Whaam!, 1963, Courtesy of Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.


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When did Pop Art start?

It is possible to retrace the origin of Pop Art in London in the early 1950s. A group of young painters, writers, sculptors and critics founded “The Independent Group”, which is considered the precursor of the Pop Art movement. The group’s aim was to discuss and challenge the predominant approaches to culture as well as the idea of fine art itself. They started to question the elitist nature of the art world, asking themselves how to appeal to the masses and how to incorporate pop culture into their works. They were strongly fascinated and influenced by American popular culture. Their body of work drew inspiration from advertising, products, pop music, comics and Hollywood movies and celebrities.

Among the members, Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton and Lawrence Alloway can be considered the most influential. The critic Lawrence Alloway had allegedly coined the term “pop art”, however, the work of Paolozzi “I was a Rich Man’s Plaything”, 1947 already includes the word “pop” in a cloud of smoke emerging from a gun.


Eduardo Paolozzi, I was a Rich Man’s Plaything, 1947, Courtesy of the Estate of Eduardo Paolozzi.


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Who is considered the founder of Pop Art?

Art historians refer to “Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different. So Appealing?”, 1956 by Richard Hamilton as the piece that kicked off the Pop Art Movement. Thus, Richard Hamilton can, in a way, be considered the founder of Pop Art. The artwork is a collage of different US magazines, mocking the new “American way of life”. It depicts two sexualised human figures: a body builder with an oversized lollipop at the level of his groin, which points at a burlesque girl sitting in an artificial pose on the sofa. The two figures are surrounded by all the state-of-the-art luxuries typical of the 50s American consumerism. These include a comic, a hoover, a television showing a woman on the phone, newspapers, a taper recorder, a crowned Ford motorcar logo, a canned ham and more details that explicitly and satirically refer to the materialistic fantasies fomented by modern advertisement. 

When was Pop Art most popular?

In the US, Pop Art reached its peak a bit later than in the UK, namely at the beginning of the 1960s. The country was experiencing a period of extraordinary economic growth and cultural changes. If British Pop artists were fuelled by American mass culture viewed from a distance, US artists were experiencing it first-hand, resulting in a bolder, less academic approach. Different countries such as Italy, Spain and France have also contributed to the movement during the 1960s and 1970s, the years in which Pop Art was most popular. However, it was New York that became the main hub for Pop Art, where the movement got shaped in its most complete and powerful ensemble.

The forceful impact that Pop Art had on the artistic scene was made possible also by the popularity of some key figures in the movement. Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Richard Hamilton, for instance, catalysed attention and produced artworks that became iconic. Andy Warhol (1928-1987) is perhaps the most famous Pop artist and, for sure, the most prolific. He became the acclaimed leader of a group of artists that revolved around his studio, the Factory, and a renowned celebrity himself. His “Marilyn Diptych”, 1962, is in turn one of the most famous Pop Art artwork. It is a monumental work consisting of fifty images portraying Marilyn Monroe, each print used a single publicity photograph taken for the film Niagara. Warhol has been defined the “bellwether of the art market” by the Economist, his creations are still highly valuable and collectable, as are numerous other Pop artists’ artworks. 

So, what is Pop Art? How is it possible to recognise a Pop Art artwork?


Richard Hamilton, Just what was it that made yesterdays homes so different, so appealing? (1956), collage. Courtesy of the Tate collection.


What is Pop Art?

In a letter to his friends and architects Peter and Alison Smithson, Richard Hamilton described the characteristics of Pop Art:

Pop Art is: Popular (designed for a mass audience), Transient (short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low cost, Mass produced, Young (aimed at youth), Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big business.”

Pop Art is usually easily recognisable. The most iconic artworks of the movement present some defining elements that confer them their unique vibrancy. These characteristics can be summarised in the use of: 

1. Recognisable imagery

Pop Art drew from products and popular media. Artists used images and icons that the viewer could very easily recognise. These included commercial items such as soup cans and sodas, which also incorporated their brand names and logos, as well as road signs, newspapers and comics. As Andy Warhol explained: “The Pop artists did images that anybody walking down Broadway could recognise in a split second—comics, picnic tables, men’s trousers, celebrities, shower curtains, refrigerators, coke bottles”.

This act of appropriation was employed by Pop artists that intentionally borrowed, copied and altered existing images to both mimic and critique the ideas, the trends and the products of the mass culture. Appropriating by reproducing and juxtaposing everyday images not only facilitated the recognition by the popular mass of a familiar imaginary, but also pushed the boundaries of who can be considered an artist and challenged the notion of originality and authorship. The iconic work of Andy Warhol, “32 Campbell’s Soup Cans'', 1962, exemplifies this perfectly. The artist appropriated the image of the widely consumed canned soup by the famous brand: Campbell’s Soup Company. It hand-painted thirty-two canvases, each one depicting a different flavor of canned soup. The first time the artwork was exhibited, the canvases were displayed together in rows and columns, resembling the products in grocery shelves. Warhol thus made use of well-known products and images, mimicking the repetition and uniformity of mass-produced printed advertisements. 

2. Bright colours

The colours chosen by Pop Art artists were usually vibrant, bright and vivid, reflecting the colours used by popular culture and advertisement to easily grab the attention of the viewer. If in previous classical art forms colours often represented the artist’s emotions or inner world, in Pop artworks they represented the bold, sexy and vibrant contemporary culture of the time. The use of colours by Roy Lichtenstein is particularly remarkable. The artist chose to use only four colours to resemble the printer’s inks: red, yellow, blue and green in addition to, obviously, white and black. The result is bold and innovative. In “Reflection on Crash” 1990, Lichtenstein uses his classic Ben-Day dots and his characteristic palette to depict the brutality of the sound. The jagged yellow and red outline seem to suggest an explosion, exaggerating the dramatic sound.   

3. Images of celebrities or fictional characters

As part of the appropriation of the popular and mass imaginary, Pop artists embraced the culture of celebrity worship, depicting celebrities, political figures and cultural icons. In the late 1950s, televisions started to find a place in every middle class American home, feeding a celebrity-obsessed culture. The public began to identify in those figures the realisation of the American dream of success. Hollywood actors, musicians, politicians, and notorious criminals became a source of imagery for Pop Art works along with the trends and tabloid stories created around them. James Rosenquist’s billboard-style artwork “President Elect” is a perfect example. The artist depicts the smiling face of John F. Kennedy, the first presidential candidate to benefit from the exploitation of mass media, together with an elegant, yellow Chevrolet and graceful fingers holding a cake from an advertisement. The result is a bold statement on the new pervasive role of advertising in every aspect of society, including presidential campaigns. As Rosenquist stated: "I was very interested at that time in people who advertised themselves. Why did they put up an advertisement of themselves? So that was his face. And his promise was half a Chevrolet and a piece of stale cake." 

4. Innovative techniques

Pop artists often created their works using commercial and machine-like techniques. This choice reinforced pop artists’ strong rejection of traditional artistic methods, and in particular of  the “heroic” methods of Abstract Expressionism, the preeminent American art movement in the 1950s. It also pushed a little further the boundaries of what can be considered art and what not, blurring the line between high and low art. Using printmaking techniques allowed to quickly produce large quantities of images. For instance, Andy Warhol employed silkscreen printing. In screen prints, the image is created by transferring the ink through a screen to a surface underneath it, which can be either textile or paper. Roy Lichtenstein instead used printing from a metal plate and lithography, techniques that gave to his works a characteristic and well-defined visual style. 

5. Mixed media and Collage

Pop Art artists challenged the traditional boundaries between techniques and media, blending materials and using both handmade and mass-produced elements. The works of Tom Wesselmann and Richard Hamilton are a case in point. Both artists created an innovative and thorough form of narrative by combining images from disparate media into a single canvas. Tom Wesselmann’s bright collage “Still Life #30” combines real objects glued on the board, cuts of printed advertisements and paint. The title is a clear reference to the long tradition of still life, while he reimagined the genre in a pop and modern way. The technique used and the objects depicted – packaged and canned food – are a clear break from tradition. 

It is not only these elements that well characterise Pop artworks. Pop Art has a peculiar emotional tone that really stands out.


Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962, Museum of Modern Art.


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What emotional tone can be detected in Pop Art images?

Works in the Pop Art tradition tend to be instantaneously appealing for the viewer, as sexy as a commercial can be. Often, irony is detected behind a colourful and dynamic facade. Images that can at first sight appear as a celebration of affluence and fame, of consumerism and materialism, also carry the abrasive potential to be seen as gimmicks with which the artists question the subject using satire and wit. Pop artworks also carry a strong anti-elitist sentiment. While mass culture is often presented as loud, banal or kitsch, it is also given a genuine and prominent role: Pop Art wants to engage with mass audiences.


Roy Lichtenstein, Reflections on Crash, 1990, Courtesy of The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation Collection 2015.


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What effect did Pop Art have on American culture?

With the advent of installations, conceptual art and performance in the 1970s, Pop Art became less and less popular. However, it left an enormous legacy, influencing the vocabulary of many artists that came in its aftermath. Even today, many Pop Artists keep the movement alive, like the Neo-Pop artist Jeff Koons or the iconic, immersive visual artist Yayoi Kusama.

Pop Art pushed the boundaries of what can be considered art, drawing inspiration from everyday objects, cultural icons, moments and commercial figures. And this is why Pop Art is so important: it made art accessible, it connected with real life and real people.

Pop Art was also a way in which the American public started to confront itself with and reflect on the direction in which its own popular culture was going. Consumerism, the cult of celebrities, and mass media were shaping US society, profoundly changing many aspects of the citizens’ life and even influencing the way in which politics and presidential campaigns were carried out. The boldness and irony of Pop Art gave the public the opportunity to be face to face with these changes. 


James Rosenquist, President-Elect, 1960-61/1964, Centre Pompidou, Paris.


Cover image: Tom Wesselmann, Still Life #30, 1963, Courtesy of Tom Wesselmann/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Written by Francesca Allevi


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