Art History 101: Pop Art

Leaping forward in time from our last art history post on the Renaissance, we’re speeding through several decades to land smack dab in the mid-20th century. 

This week we’ll be covering the Pop Art movement and the neo-realist artists.

Known for their graphic works featuring bold imagery and unexpected mixes of colors, these artists were influenced by the post-World War boom and a wave of Mad Men-esque advertising such as those pictured below.

"1960 Frigidaire Oven Advertisement Life Magazine February 15 1960", "1960 Early Times Bourbon Advertisement Life Magazine May 9, 1960", and "1965 Dodge Coronet 500 Advertisement Road & Track February 1965" by SenseiAlan is licensed under CC BY 2.0 


The Pop Art movement, short for Popular Art, followed the Fauve and Dada art movements. It developed almost concurrently with Abstract Expressionism, which began shortly before in the 1940s.

The movement draws many parallels between its preceding art movements, adopting the strong, bright colors and clear lines of the Fauves as well as the mediums, viewpoints, and attitudes of the radically nonsensical Dadaists (represented below by Marcel Duchamp’s famous 1917, Fountain). 

Although they embraced their predecessors, the Pop artists also rejected what they perceived as the staunch elitism of their Abstract Expressionist counterparts. These artists, chiefly Rothko, Pollock, and de Kooning, relished in new forms of abstraction: their art focused on using color, mediums, and mark-making to express certain emotions, thoughts, and experiences (represented below by Arshile Gorky’s oil on canvas painting, Enigmatic Combat). 

Marcel Duchamp, “1917, Fountain” photograph by Alfred Stieglitz (via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain) and "Enigmatic Combat" by Zooey_ is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 


The Pop artists incorporated popular imagery into their works of art, in some cases remixing and splicing these figures for their own ends. The familiar subjects in their artworks came right from the pages of comics, newspapers, magazines, cartoons, and straight off the silver screen.

The cultural climate of the 1950s and 60s allowed these visionaries to foster a healthy skepticism for popular culture, allowing them to question, critique, subvert, and ultimately appropriate the symbols that were corporate cornerstones in America and abroad. 

Thanks to their unconventional views, these artists shook the art world to its very core, changing the way everyone appreciates and experiences art forevermore.

While the American Pop artists are the most widely celebrated,
this movement began in the United Kingdom in the late 1940s with a group of artists known as the “Independent Group”.

These artists began experimenting with collage and culturally relevant symbols from popular culture and magazines as a way to cope with the massive economic inequality between the UK and the USA at the time. The severely divergent realities between these two world powers were only further highlighted thanks, in part, to the nascent field of advertisement.

Artists like Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton began critiquing and point out the ironies promoted in Anglo-American culture through advertising with a series of unprecedented and unusual collages.

"Moonstrips Empire News" by Eduardo Paolozzi photo by hyperion327 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

This technique of collaging and remixing, sometimes known as appropriating or quoting, as well as the seemingly slapdash compositions of their work, were part of the reason why the Independent Group was initially ridiculed by the so-called fine art establishment. 

It was the graphic and provocative nature of these works of art that would later inspire other artists to think critically about society, mass production, and what they consumed (both literally, and figuratively).


Roy Lichenstein” by Nadia Bouloudene is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.


Roy Lichtenstein, who started his career in the early 1950s, is perhaps best known for his eye-catching and boldly colorful comic book panel reproductions on canvas. 

In his lifetime, Lichtenstein enjoyed a staggering amount of popular and academic success. His works were, and still are, hugely popular among collectors and the public alike. His compositions are both as recognizable and as well-loved as those of fellow Pop artist, Andy Warhol. 

Lichtenstein’s critics are many, but the most vocal by far have been the comic book artists whose work he appropriated. Artists like Dave Gibbons, Russ Heath, and Irv Novick all “received the Lichtenstein treatment” and they, along with their supporters, continue to debate the ethics of this Pop artist’s success. These artists, frustrated by Lichtenstein’s overwhelming celebrity, and grappling with their own works being dismissed as childish and kitschy, view the Pop artist’s work as little more than rip-offs of their originals. 

We can’t say we blame them—comparing the glaring price tags attached to some of Lichtenstein’s pieces with the retail value of the comics that “inspired” them sheds an unsightly splotch on this artists’ profound, though apparently torrid, legacy.

"The Broad" by Roller Coaster Philosophy is licensed under CC BY 2.0 and demonstrates the work “Live Ammo (Blang) by Lichtenstein, after Joe Kubert


Famous for his punchy silkscreen prints of everyday objects and celebrities, Andy Warhol started his artistic journey as a commercial illustrator for print advertisements. As he grew more and more successful in these endeavors, however, he also grew interested in branching out into the fine art world and began making thought-provoking and instantly recognizable masterpieces.

Warhol set up his studio in an abandoned factory in New York City and recruited dozens of artists, performers, and assistants to work on an assembly line. This helped him explore his long-standing fascination with mass production and automated art, and allowed him to produce works on a larger scale. 

"NY April 2014" by Vix_B is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Warhol saw art in everything: his most recognizable piece is a series of prints known as his Campbell’s Soup Cans (above). This set of now-infamous prints features the image of the artist’s favorite soup tins repeated across 32 canvases.

Featuring Campbell’s iconic bright red-and-white color scheme and crisp lines, Warhol’s prints initially look like something ripped straight out of an advertisement. These seemingly mundane pieces inspired countless debates over what makes something a work of art. 

In short, it’s the context, purpose, and ultimately the viewer’s perspective that makes something a piece of “art”. We can definitively say that Warhol’s prints weren’t made with the intent to help Campbell’s sell more soup—he made them to exhibit in the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in the spring of 1962. Furthermore, simply hanging these prints in a gallery beside a little plaque with Warhol’s name on it makes the viewer just that much more positively inclined to think of these prints as fine art. As to their purpose, Warhol himself said he painted soup cans because he had grown up eating Campbell’s and loved their soup. 


The Pop artists used the imagery and landscape of their times to create art that was provocative, bold, and critical of the culture that they saw emerging at the dawn of a new era. These artists’ techniques, styles, and sensibilities continue to influence generations of artists interested in creating art that anyone and everyone can enjoy and appreciate. However controversial, their work was pivotal in democratizing the art world and paving the way for new artists from diverse backgrounds to find their voice. It is precisely thanks to them that we as a society have begun to expand the definition of art, broadening what it means to be, and who can be, an artist.

Feeling inspired?

Check out our selection of Pop Art prints! The list is super long so we made it into a downloadable PDF with links and everything. 😊


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