Pop Art Design still appeals to contemporary eyes at the Barbican

By Sarah Jackson | 22 October 2013

Exhibition review: Pop Art Design, Barbican Art Gallery, London, until February 9 2014

Curved sofa with Stars and Stripes design.
Studio 65, Leonardo (1969). Collection Vitra Design Museum© Andreas Sütterlin
Pop Art is one of the best-known and influential art forms of the 20th century, familiar to almost everybody. It has even crept into our homes, in designs ranging from Peter Blake and Jann Haworth’s cover for The Beatles seminal Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band to the seductive lines of Charles and Ray Eames’ furniture.

So much of what is on display at the Barbican looks familiar – there is Gaetano Pesce’s Moloch, a giant version of a swing-arm Luxo L1 light, and Andy Warhol’s Close Cover Before Striking, which copies a book of matches – but it still looks fresh.

Artists and designers alike embraced new technologies and materials, creating enticing works with smooth surfaces and clean lines that give no indication of a maker’s hand anywhere in the process.

Pop Art is very much of its time and yet it still appeals to contemporary eyes. Perhaps it’s the clean lines and bright colours that mean that it’s far easier to grasp than some other art forms.

A 1953 film by Charles and Ray Eames conveniently called A Communications Primer offers a reason why Pop Art remains, well, popular.  It suggests that all systems of communication can be summed up in one simple formula.

A painter, for example, may wish to portray a particular concept in their work. Using their skills they create an image that depicts that message. Viewers receive the image of the painting when they look at it, and its meaning is decoded by the brain

Andy Warhol, Close Cover Before Striking (1962)
Andy Warhol, Close Cover Before Striking (1962). Collection Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.© 2013 2012 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), Nwe York/DACS, London
Messages are rarely transmitted intact however – there is always “noise”, which refers to any interference, such as poor lighting, or prejudices of the viewer or actual auditory noise.

The consequence of this is that even if a painter believes that they have perfectly captured a concept in their work, if the viewer cannot properly decode the signal, the message is mangled or even lost.

The code that Pop Art uses however already surrounds us. So long as you are tapped into popular culture, you already have the tools by which to decode the message. But what message is Pop Art trying to convey?

In the aftermath of the Second World War, huge social, cultural and technological changes rumbled through society. It was the age that began the cult of celebrity; that turned commodities into must-have items and signalled the start of the media’s expansion into daily life. America prospered, and nothing personified its ideals of consumerism and democracy as much as advertising.

Artists began to take inspiration from the tools of branding and marketing, designers were then inspired by the artists and so began a dialogue that quickly penetrated society. It’s this dialogue that is at the heart of Pop Art Design. Exhibiting work by Pop Artists and designers side-by-side like this underscores how symbiotic that relationship really was.

Like advertising, Pop Art rarely seems to create individual humans with personalities. People appear in both as consumers, machines, or caricatures; sometimes they are just body parts. Women in particular are deconstructed in this way, appearing as objects of sexual desire or mannequins with little personality of their own.

Allen Jones’ Chair (1969) is possibly the least subtle example of this. The chair is formed by a fibreglass sculpture of a woman lying on her back, her knees tucked into her chest. On top of her legs sits a cushion. This is not a depiction of a real woman, but a fantasy of women’s bodies as both erotic and functional.

But by using these motifs is Pop Art celebrating or critiquing them? Perhaps it does both. Derek Boshier’s Drinka Pinta Milka portrays a tottering pile of human figures being drenched in milk. It’s widely interpreted as a symbol of the helplessness of individuals against the continuous flow of branding and consumerism – but is it a protest or just an acknowledgment?

Duality is not a problem in Pop Art – it delights in playing with opposites, intermingling work and pleasure and the unique versus the mass-produced. Part of this duality is that whilst it uses a code easily understood and enjoyed by many, the content of the message is less clear.

Is it a celebration of the market of ideas that capitalism has produced? Or is it critiquing those same ideals of consumerism? Are these bright and sometimes kitsch pieces supposed to be enjoyed for themselves or with a deep side of irony?

Whichever interpretation you decide to take, Pop Art Design reveals the deep and interdependent relationship between art, design and culture. It is certain to brighten up even the darkest winter day.

  • Open 10am-6pm (9pm Thursday and Friday, 12pm-6pm Bank Holidays). Admission £6-£12. Book online. Follow the centre on Twitter @BarbicanCentre.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More pictures:


Gaetano Pesce, Moloch floor lamp.
Gaetano Pesce, Moloch (1970-71). Collection MNAM/CC, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.© Aldo and Marirosa Ballo
James Rosenquist, I Love You with My Ford
James Rosenquist, I Love You with My Ford (1961). Collection Moderna Museet.© Moderna Museet-Stockholm/Prallan Allsten
Tom Wesselmann, Smoker Banner
Tom Wesselmann, Smoker Banner (1971). Private Collection, Siegen.© 2013 Estate of Tom Wesselmann/DACS, London/VAGA, NY

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Follow Sarah Jackson on Twitter @SazzyJackson
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