Friday, December 07, 2007

There's something about Marilyn

A strong contender for the best exhibition of the year, Pop Art Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery is a thrilling investigation of the revolutionary principles behind Pop Art and a display of some of the last century's most enthralling works.

More than the Pop Art response to commercialism, as typified by the Eduardo Paolozzi collages of actors and modern technology set in sterile suburbia (left), I was really interested in what seemed to be Pop Art operating at a fundamental level of art, questioning its basic ideas.

Whereas portraiture had always been about representation - even the tarted-up representation of the patron - Pop Art undermined this: is a portrait still a portrait if its subject is hidden? or fictional? or coloured like highlighter pens exploded over the canvas? (You can see to whom this leads.) Pop Art challenged the primacy of the image.

Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg (with one of his trademark combines) depicted people atraditionally, Johns using a facial cast under an abstract collage, Rauschenberg drawing Johns by objects and symbols. These are radical, perhaps unacceptably radical for popular art, which is why the much more aesthetically pleasing Andy Warhol, Patrick Caulfield and Roy Lichtenstein are more famous and popular. Larry Rivers' 'Mr Art' (1962) is a halfway house, smacking of Bacon, with a half-erased head.

One room contains three gems. Warhol's 'Self-portrait' (1964), Lichtenstein's 'In the Car' (1963) and Caulfield's 'Portrait of Juan Gris' (1963) are all archetypes of different approaches to this re-examination. Warhol removes definition and personal participation (it's a screenprint), while Lichtenstein adds absurd definition: because his subjects are taken from a comic, he paints all the dots of the printing, revealing their fictionality. Caulfield takes a similar route to Warhol, but emphasises the unreality with his zig-zag lines. The very concept of the image is being reinforced, since - post-Kandinsky - it could have been abandoned altogether, but simultaneously undermined.

Warhol was the genius of Pop Art, and not just for his perceptive remarks about fame, but for combining both aesthetic brilliance and a true understanding of what the modern era meant for art and its givens. (More on this in my review of The Painting of Modern Life.) This is evoked in his use of screenprinting, mechanising the production of the image, changing our perception of its value without destroying it.

Forced us to look and to turn away, in truth. The final room of the show is dedicated to various Pop Art Marilyns, since she was the perfect, tragic sign of the modern dissociation of image and reality. In the dimmed setting, coming on ten of Warhol's Marilyns on one wall is a revelatory, crushing experience. The colours are more brilliant and vibrant than can ever be reproduced, so I'm not going to insult them by putting them up here. The turquouises, pinks, yellows, greys - the whole rainbow, really - are shocking and pleasing.

They strike you with an aesthetic overload first, and then their artistic and cultural importance rushed up. These are some of the most reproduced, imitated and influential images ever made (thanks to mass media), so to be in their presence is like standing in front of Princess Diana or Madonna - you cannot quite believe they are real. And they are the summation of Warhol's work in the image - the face but not the face. You can't look because they are so overaweing.

What the NPG has done is explore an undervalued theme in modern art - expanding, not reinforcing what its audience knows - and do it with some fabulous paintings. The stars of Pop Art shine in their genius, Warhol above all, Warhol who forced us to look at the image again.

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