You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it’s evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
~Lennon and McCartney
Orange and green wallpaper encircles a room dotted with molded space-age chairs. Coffee tables become pedestals for dancers in mini-skirts and go-go boots, while tuxedoed men mingle with a martini in one hand and a cigarette in the other. It’s the ultimate mid-century modern cocktail party and each week, Rowan and Martin hosted one on their seminal television variety show “Laugh In” which aired from 1968 to 1973. Now, cut to 2020: mannequins wearing paper shift dresses are flanked by a Warhol soup can and a Tom Wesselman collage at the entry to a provocative exhibition recalling the wild affairs and cultural shifts that defined a tumultuous era. “Photo Revolution: Andy Warhol to Cindy Sherman” asks how photography, Pop Art and popular culture influenced one another and is currently on view at the Worcester Art Museum through February 16th, 2020.
As Abstract Expressionism of the 1950’s waned, artists returned to figurative and representational imagery, often using printmaking techniques that were common in commercial applications. Artists such as Warhol and Wesselmann embraced advertising or “low” art forms as their subjects. But how did photographers such as Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand and William Eggleston engage in the conversation around “low” art? Nancy Burns, the Stoddard Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs dove into the rich holdings of the Worcester Art Museum to compare and contrast a variety of artistic mediums addressing the vast scale of marketing and news imagery that appeared in our landscapes, on grocery store shelves, and beamed across television airwaves. A William Eggleston color picture of a rusty “Wonder Bread” billboard nearby Warhol’s tidy soup cans draw strong parallels between documentary photographs and silk screens as fodder for Pop Art.
Television became the great equalizer as more and more U.S. households acquired them in the latter half of the twentieth century. Diane Arbus’ marvelous image of a living room with an oversized Christmas tree, bounty of presents and a large television cabinet present a kind of skeptical reverence for the American dream. Winogrand, on the other hand, reveals the lack of substance behind the scenes by showing what the television cameras crop out at a political press event, while Andy Warhol mined the flicker of televised imagery surrounding JFK’s assassination in one of the earliest events that the nation witnessed in real time.
Appropriating photographs and incorporating them into collage to create dissonant dialogs are the stock-in-trade for Pop artists such as Rosalyn Drexler and Tom Wesselmann. Drexler painted over the found images from movies and television, specifically gangsters in “The Defenders” and Wesselmann combined photographs, prints and painting in the “Great American Nude Series,” both riffing on the sexual politics of the day. Carnal issues are not the only charged subjects tackled through layering and juxtaposition. Several works based on the “My Lai Massacre” or Martha Rosler’s collage, “Tron (Amputee),” suggest how the comfort of American homes was disrupted by or hinged upon violence against others. And though it is not a work of collage, Robert Frank’s grainy black and white image of a waitress in the Ranch Market is a cacophony of competing details presenting a similarly layered vision of discord.
Peppered throughout the exhibit are vernacular pictures that revel in American rites and rituals. Consumers of Kodak Instamatic cameras and ready-made photography albums allowed for these small prints to flourish among a large swath of the American public. In addition, a broad selection of Warhol’s Polaroids featuring New York’s high society embrace the vernacular aesthetic. These naive pictures seem to anticipate the current obsession with Instagram and other social platforms. The ubiquitous snapshots declared proof of experience and existence. Cindy Sherman probably best personifies the search for self in pictures. Her early film stills made in the late 70’s are amateurish in their craft, but explore feminine stereotypes, while her large scale color portraits made in the early 80’s mine deeper psychological territory, as in the gender fluid persona she presents in “Untitled #112.” One delightful and rare picture included here is a photo booth portrait of Sherman dressed up as Lucille Ball, probably the only time she transformed herself into a famous person.
The veneer of affluence in the 60’s through the late 70’s was reflected in TV shows such as “Laugh In” and in slick Madison Avenue marketing, but beneath that surface was a nation that stood divided and messy around issues such as the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, feminism and youth culture. Each set of issues carries its own language, just as each medium presented in this exhibit might be dissected through the lens of its own nomenclature, but nothing happens in a vacuum. By paring multi-media works from these decades, visitors experience the generational ethos in both its perceptual and conceptual works. Photo Revolution boldly begs the question: is art merely a reflection of its time or is it produced by the spirit of its age?
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