Pop Goes the Menil

The art of making popular images inaccessible.

While many think of pop art only in terms of Andy Warhol's soup cans, the 20th century's arguably most influential art movement (not counting Etch A Sketch) will get its due in Houston. "Pop Art: U.S./U.K. Connections, 1956-1966" encompasses a visual exhibit at the Menil Collection, film screenings at the Museum of Fine Arts, and concerts from Da Camera. The multimedia approach, of course, is right in line with the genre it celebrates.

Pop artists found inspiration in the imagery of, naturally enough, popular culture such as film, TV, advertising, radio and fashion, according to David Brauer, who co-curated the visual and film segments with Jim Edwards. The Brits, who were fascinated with the iconic culture of their former colonists, started the ball rolling (with a little ironic distance), which the Yanks then picked up. "The Americans owned the candy store, and the Brits were outside with their noses pressed to the glass," Brauer says. "The significance of pop art is that you have high culture that is trying to be understood in the new world of mass media."

Thus Warhol, with his silk-screened images of Marilyn Monroe, or Roy Lichtenstein, with his blown-up comic book panels, took everyday images and turned them into something else. Though pop art did (and still does) divide opinion as to whether it is true "art," Menil director Ned Rifkin scoffs at those who dismiss it. "What it did was bring back the feasibility of using [familiar] imagery. It's an advance of the idea of collage or montage," he says. With today's pop artists, he adds, it's sometimes hard to draw the line between the actual mass media and the work inspired by it.

While the Menil portion features 56 works by artists both well known and minor, the film program focuses mostly on the work of Richard Lester. Best known as the director of A Hard Day's Night and Help!, Lester is far more versatile than those films would indicate; in fact, the emphasis here is on his surrealist works such as How I Won the War (featuring John Lennon) and The Bed Sitting Room.

"Dick Lester is very significant and appropriate for this exhibition because he's a connection -- an American director making movies in Britain," Brauer says. "And those who only know Lester by the Beatles films will be surprised. I mean, The Knack…and How to Get It is a very strange film."

Most of the exhibit's pieces pointedly cut off in 1966 because psychedelia and the hard news of the day changed the direction of pop art. Those expecting works that look like set pieces from the Austin Powers films will be disappointed. "The late '60s had a very different feel, and we wanted to make that distinction," Brauer says.

Houston and Paris are hosting the only two major pop art exhibits this year. By the time the next one rolls around, maybe you'll find works inspired by more contemporary sources, like the latest Britney CD or, God forbid, Survivor.


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