Recently, I went to check out an after-hours preview party for the International Pop exhibition at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The Walker's press materials had promised a "whirlwind night" and encouraged attendees to "dress to inspire" in fashions of the pop era (skinny ties, "doe eyes," miniskirts). When my friend and I pulled up to the venerable museum we found it done up to look like a traveling carnival, awash in the neon glow of a Ferris wheel, specially installed for the occasion.
It was a festive and appropriate setting for a preview party for a show on pop, with its focus on cultural references and the irreverent. I couldn't help but think of the wildly popular Minnesota State Fair, an homage to food on a stick that takes place in the Twin Cities every August and where, I am sure, a ton of pop (the Minnesotan term for carbonated soft drinks) is sold.
Thoughtfully organized in dialogue with an international array of curators and scholars, International Pop chronicles the global emergence of pop from the 1950s through the early 70s with familiar categories such as "New Realism" and "Pop & Politics," but also region-specific galleries such as "Brazil: The New Consciousness" and "Japan: The Sogetsu Art Center & Tokyo Pop." (For those who are unfamiliar: The Sogetsu Art Center [SAC] in Tokyo was a major hub for avant-garde activities between 1958 and 1971, a period of concentrated energy for the experimental arts in Japan.) And it's this global aspect of the exhibit that makes it so unique. The show's focus isn't just on pop's well-documented and discussed representation in London and New York, but the worldwide phenomenon, including works by Czech artist Jiří Kolář, Italian artist Domenico "Mimmo" Rotella, and Argentine artist Marta Minujín, to name just a few.
Often, one of the joys of opening-night museum parties is the opportunity for physical interaction with the objects on display, an act that is usually frowned upon in the traditional museum context. The Walker didn't disappoint in this regard: Our first activity for the night was to play the popular carnival game High Striker, for which we were rewarded with plastic carnival beads. Although the High Striker was only present for the preview party, future museum visitors seeking an interactive experience can still get their fix over the course of the exhibit by lounging in pop-upholstered couches in the film-screening room, or by lifting the canvas covers of Brazilian artist Antonio Manuel's Repressão outra vez—Eis o saldo (Repression Again—Here Is the Consequence , 1968), which reveal five red and black panels showing images of violent street clashes between police and students. (Even outside of the "Pop & Politics" gallery, artworks with political statements are prevalent in International Pop.)
Just up the stairs from Manuel's panels, I located an intriguing suspended hybrid bird/bee sculpture titled La Mamouschka operada (Mamoushska After Surgery, 1964) by Edgardo Giménez, and a friendly gallery guard named Melissa standing beneath it. Like her colleagues, Melissa was wearing a long-sleeve black T-shirt with one question posed on the front—hers said, "Are you open to interpretation?" It sounded like an invitation to chat, and Melissa told me that each guard gets to pick her own shirt with one of several questions (my favorite: "Why do we ask questions?"). Melissa, who is a poet, answered her own shirt's question in the affirmative, asserting that "art is what you think it is," which fit the overall inclusive feeling of the preview party as a whole. Indeed, I heard artwork being interpreted all over the place. A small bronze-colored sculpture by Yayoi Kusama called Oven-Pan (1963) looked to me like a painted Pyrex dish filled with tuber-esque objects, but another partygoer said it reminded her of something she "saw in a manhole." To each her own.
As I scanned the galleries for the best examples of the museum's "dress to inspire" request, two attendees stood out almost immediately (disappointingly, most people didn't bother to go beyond ironing a button-down shirt). One of the standouts was Isabelle, a soft-spoken high-school student in a shiny mini dress (a regular piece of her wardrobe, not acquired especially for this event), who was simply "looking for more to do." Isabelle chose well in coming to the Walker, which also hosts regular Teen Takeover nights in the museum, where the unofficial motto is "A Safe Place for Unsafe Ideas."
The second winner of the evening was Japanese artist Ushio Shinohara, who won not only for his style (topped off by a mohawk he said he's sported since 1957) but also for his enthusiasm. Shinohara is one of the featured artists in
International Pop, and when my companion and I approached him for a photo, he insisted on shuttling us around to each of his sculptures and paintings, where he posed with them, hamming it up with playfully aggressive faces (suited to his persona in the highly-praised 2013 documentary Cutie and the Boxer, which explores the relationship between him and his wife, artist Noriko Shinohara, who was with him at the museum and quite stylish herself). Shinohara told us that he moved to New York City 40 years ago and settled in the rapidly changing arts neighborhood of DUMBO 25 years ago, where he lives with Noriko and makes art by "just doing crazy stuff."
Shinohara's work is directly influenced by American pop, and one of his pieces, Coca-Cola Plan (1964), is displayed in the gallery side by side with the 1958 Robert Rauschenberg sculpture—also called Coca-Cola Plan—which he based his version on. The artist, who regularly read coverage of American art in the 1960s, was at the time struggling to create original Pop art of his own, and, in an inspired channeling of so many current-day fine arts MFA students, he explains his approach like so: "If you used food, that would be an Oldenburg, while human figures are taken by Segal, comics by Lichtenstein, flags by Johns, paint-pouring by Rauschenberg. There is no new style anywhere anymore. Shit! Why don't I do all of them at once then?" True to this approach, he has three works in different media in International Pop, including a painting/assemblage/sculpture called Drink More (1963), which is, in fact, owned by Jasper Johns himself.
At the end of the exhibition the Walker had set up a dance floor, such as it was, replete with DJ spinning (roughly) period-appropriate tunes, a bar, and a lot of shimmying Minnesotans. Which is to say a lot of mostly white folks, mostly standing around, though everybody seemed so nice it was hard to judge their lack of moves.
As a whole, the preview party and the exhibition itself captured the exuberant spirit of pop art. The curators have done a service to museum-goers in assembling an internationally expanded view of a time period in art-making that most Americans identify disproportionately with Andy Warhol—an immensely important figure, to be sure, but definitely not the only influential player in the game, as International Pop makes clear. My only (impossible) suggestion for improvement is that Ushio Shinohara remain for the duration of the exhibition, so that all visitors can experience such a tour.
International Pop is on view at the Walker through August 29, 2015. Afterward, the exhibit will appear at the Dallas Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art through 2016.
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