Report from … London
Pop Art Design at the Barbican Art Gallery
22 October, 2013 to 9 February, 2014
Packed with two floors of objects and images in seemingly every medium – lounge chairs and television advertisements, collages and coke bottles, paintings and floor lamps – the Barbican’s ambitious Pop Art Design pitched itself as “the first comprehensive exhibition to explore the exciting exchange of ideas between artists and designers in the Pop age.” (The exhibition was previously seen at the Vitra Design Museum, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and Stockholm’s Moderna Museet.) As the show’s paratactic, three-word title would suggest, it is Pop that was posited as having mediated between the latter two phenomena: a sensibility, both historical and ineffable, that nourished art and design alike in the Cold War era. Claiming a kind of insouciant reciprocity between the ambits of artistic experimentation and product design, the show consistently flattened out the differences between them, venturing instead a “thematic kaleidoscope [sic]” that adduced a range of loosely grouped works without much regard for their respective origins, intentions, or effects.
One of the first objects in the exhibition, a “Leonardo” sofa by Studio 65 (1969), hit all the right notes and suggested – in its play between use value and the ironization of signs – what the exhibition might have explored more thoroughly and carefully. Conflating function and iconicity, the couch sets the stars and stripes of the American flag into an undulating, two-tiered assembly of interconnected parts. Nearby, a Jasper Johns target painting lent some proto-Pop context (one of the painter’s flag paintings was presumably unavailable), while a Yonel Lebovici’s large Fiche Male (Plug Socket) sculpture (1977) duly recalled Claes Oldenburg’s giant objects and their outsized estrangement of even the most ordinary of household wares. Like the nearby “La Bocca” couch, also by Studio 65, designers during the late 1960s and 70s indeed paid heed to certain artistic currents; the “La Bocca”’s inflated red lips conjure up both Man Ray’s legendary painting, Observatory Time: The Lovers (1936)and Dalí’s Mae West Lips Sofa (1937). But the appeal to art historical and even contemporary artistic iconography in strains of design cannot be seen as the mere equivalent of Pop’s varied, ambivalent, and often contradictory uses (and abuses) of design. With its post-Cubist juxtaposition of collage-like imagery, including a car hood, cuddling lovers, and a plate of spaghetti, James Rosenquist’s I Love you with my Ford (1961) performs a very different operation upon its mass-produced object than, say, Oldenburg’s Soft Lunchbox (1962).
A wall text noted apropos of one Pop painting on display that it was “difficult to tell if it is critical or appreciative.” Such a description goes some way in underscoring the indeterminate premise of Pop at large, at least in its early phases. If post-war design made use of popular imagery to enliven forms bound up with function, Pop’s reproduction of consumerist codes aimed to question the very mechanisms of their incessant repetition. To be sure, not all (indeed, hardly any) of the show’s appliances and apparatuses fall into the category of “good design.” And certain twentieth-century designers (Bruno Munari’s bent forks come to mind) often undermined the clockwork of utility even as he contributed to its development. Yet the exhibition took no pains to distinguish between the semantic registers of either the artworks or objects on display – or to probe the point at which artwork and object in the postwar period often seemed to trade identities. One glimpse of such slippage came in Allen Jone’s Chair (1969), in which a functional seat rests on the upraised legs of a submissive female mannequin wearing S&M gear. That Allen is commonly referred to as a sculptor, rather than furniture designer, at least complicates the work’s aesthetic and material status in interesting ways. An early, hand-painted room divider by Andy Warhol on display undeniably conjured up questions about hand-wrought artifice as opposed to use value. Likewise his nearby Close Cover before Striking painting – which flattens the American Match Company and Coca Cola advertising into the same pictorial and conceptual plane – highlights early Pop’s critical engagement with mass-produced imagery.
Yet the later paintings that peppered subsequent rooms (like Warhol’s ubiquitous Marilyn Monroe) appeared as mere filler on the wall, related to design in only the loosest sense. In a similar vein, making cameos in nearly every gallery was the work of Alexander Girard, known chiefly for his work in fabric and textile design, but also celebrated for his comprehensive design environments from the 1950s and 60s, particularly the La Fonda del Sol restaurant in Manhattan’s Time-Life building. Aside from a penchant for bright colors and simple shapes, Girard’s relation to Pop is difficult to trace except in the most ample dimension. Ed Ruscha’s painting, Honk (1962) hypostatizes commercial typography to the dimensions of monumental architecture; the work implicitly insists upon the rapport between commercial design and a (visualized) language of the everyday. By contrast, his photographic series Every Building on the Sunset Strip appeared entirely out of place here, and once again stretched the exhibition’s conceptual parameters past any discernible limits. The section titled “Everyday Life Made Public” in fact seemed to dispense altogether with questions of design, while, conversely, the ample space dedicated to work by Charles and ray Eames – from chairs to films – related to Pop art in only the loosest of senses.
Perhaps most poignant in synthesizing the exhibition’s dizzying “kaleidoscope” were the numerous examples of Italian design, whether Ettore Sottsass’s willfully kitsch plates and mirrors, Studio D’s “Pillola” Lamps (1968), or the “Passiflora” lamp by Superstudio (1968). While the influence of Pop and proto-Pop imagery upon these examples of post-war design is relatively straightforward, the role of design in Pop art itself is a far more thorny matter, shot through with questions that cut to the ambivalent origins of Pop itself. While not in the exhibition, Man Ray’s infamous object, The Gift (1921) makes literal the potentially barbed nature of appropriation, as practiced first by Dada artists and again after World War Two by neo-Dada and certain Pop figures. Gluing a row of tacks to the surface of an iron, Ray transfigures the object into a menacing weapon, but also renders it useless as an appliance. Artists like Rosenquist and Oldenburg did not merely rehearse the visual pleasures of commodification, but probed the relationships between them: the extent to which every aspect of our daily lives is implicated in an economy of consumption and desire, including a consumption of signs, codifications, and spectacularizations of those desires. Appropriating the language of advertising (and hence, implicitly, of design), Pop Artists frequently troubled the spectacle of consumerism, as much as simply reproducing its mechanisms. The exhibition’s hesitancy to acknowledge that nuance proved as disappointing as its individual objects were thrilling to see.