Pop Art: Now | A Global Snapshot: from Hirst to Kusama

In our previous article in the Pop Art series, Pop Art: Before | British vs American, we talked about the origins of Pop Art in the early 1960s and the artists that best represented the British and American Pop Art movement of that time. In this article, we are discussing how Pop Art is still very much alive and relevant in today’s society - even though it now has quite a different aesthetic compared to when the movement first began, the underlying motivations of the artists within this movement remain quite constant.

‘Then and Now’: Has Pop Art changed over time? 

Today, Pop Art still continues to critique the ‘toxic’ traits of mass production, consumerism and capitalism that are so prevalent in our society. However, some contemporary pop artists are finding clever and innovative ways to push these concepts further.

The iconic Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans aesthetic that first shaped the pop art scene has since been joined by the iconic Jeff Koons’ balloon dogs and Damien Hirst’s spot paintings in today’s world, and although the appearances may seem quite different, all these artworks share similarities in how they use everyday objects and compositions to channel messages around social commentary in a way that is easily accessible and understandable for the masses.

When the Pop Art movement flourished in the 1960s, it did not only act as a social critique, it also became a direct rebellion against what is typically  thought of as ‘high art’; produced by ‘professional artists’ who were formally trained at prestigious art schools (and most often from privileged backgrounds) and therefore deemed ‘worthy’ by the art world . 

To challenge this mould, pop artists actively pushed the traditional boundaries of this ‘high art’ by taking simple everyday objects  and simple compositions, in contrast to the complex and detailed compositions of ‘professional artists’. By doing this, pop artists sought to enter the art world through the ‘backdoor’ by being disruptive and radical, creating a new way to be seen and heard amidst the traditional pathways to becoming a well-known and respected artist. 

The world has certainly changed a lot since Pop Art first came around over half a century ago. Today we are in the thick of digitalisation, globalisation and the rise of neoliberalism changing the way we consume information and connect with others. So, it's no real surprise that the Pop Art aesthetic of today feels quite different than it used to be when it started… To explore the aesthetics of the current modern Pop Art scene further, we are looking at four pop artists who are currently practicing around the globe today…!

How have we defined an artist as a ‘pop artist’?

In this article, the four artists we have hand-picked are quite literally amongst the most ‘popular’ (what the ‘Pop’ in ‘Pop Art’ is actually short for). They have achieved global fame both within the art world and amongst the wider public at large to become household names. 

They also echo the aesthetics of original Pop Art by using everyday objects/characters, bright colours and simplified compositions, which speak effectively to both the trained and untrained eye. The themes of the works these artists produce also tend to tie back to capitalism and consumerism with varying degrees of subtlety and explicitness.  

• Damien Hirst (United Kingdom)

Damien Hirst has always been pushing the boundaries of fine art through his disruptive works; from exhibiting a dead tiger shark in his The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) to experimenting with flies as a material for a very dark series of paintings and sculptures. Hirst’s works are always provocative and different, and tend to tackle the theme of consumerism from quite a different perspective; that of mortality and death. This is best seen in For the Love of God , one of his most famous works, which features a real human skull encrusted with 8,601 flawless diamonds. The symbolism here is perhaps the ultimate reminder that not even the wealthiest among us can take their money with them, or use it to escape the fate that every human eventually succumbs to… death.

However,  more recently he has explicitly addressed this same topic of consumerism and capitalist culture, when he experimented with his first NFT art by launching The Currency during summer 2021. This series shook the very foundations of the art market, as it forces all collectors of the works to decide if they prize the physical artwork itself, or the potential value of its appreciating NFT more highly... and whichever they choose will lead to the destruction of the other. We’re curious to see how this all unfolds over the next year, and what he comes up with next!

• KAWS (United States)

KAWS is an American artist known for his figurative cartoon characters, limited edition toys and clothing. Using the same signature aesthetic within his fine art and in his collectables as well as throughout his merchandise, he truly blurs the line between fine art and commercial retail. Which feels like a comment on consumerism in itself! If you can't beat them, join them, hey? 

His creations can now be seen anywhere from apparel collaborations with big brands to a2008 Kanye West album cover, so he is well and truly ingrained in our pop culture aesthetic of the modern day.

Starting out as a graffiti artist who reworked advertisements within his own unique style, KAWS put his stamp on consumerist imagery with his own commentary and views. The famous Companions characters he has created with crosses for eyes, were first inspired right after his time working as an animator in the 1990s for Disney. They carry much of the look and feel of well known characters such as Mickey Mouse but are mostly depicted as shy, vacant or distraught, with their head in their hands. 

This may be KAWS’s way of reminding us these characters are not just fantasy figures in the way it might seem on the surface. They, much like us, are not immune from the capitalist system, they were in fact born out of it, and have now become integral to it, and therefore cannot escape it, hence the sad expressions of the Companions. Capitalism is therefore for them, much like us, a likely root of their unhappiness.

• Jeff Koons (United States)

Did you know that you can now own a Koons t-shirt for just $19,90? Yes, that is indeed the same artist that holds the record for the biggest sale at auction, with his $91m artwork: Rabbit. Probably the most controversial figure on our list, it’s Jeff Koons; an American Wall Street broker turned contemporary multimedia artist. 

Most well-known for his balloon-like animals and his use of mundane objects like hoovers, Koons excels in exposing the kitsch banality of everyday life in a way that feels markedly similar to Warhol. He does however also create works featuring some of the most well-known cartoon characters, and major ad campaigns, (though these have got him in trouble a few times, on charges of plagiarism). Koons seem to have neatly divided critics into two camps: some believe that his work has great importance in the art world; whilst others say that it is crass, cynical and based on shameless self-merchandising. We’d love to hear your thoughts about him in the comments below! Is he a true artist, a true opportunist, neither, or a mix of the two?!

• Philip Colbert (United Kingdom)

Though lesser well-known than Hirst or Koons, Philip Colbert is a very successful contemporary Scottish pop artist who works across the mediums of painting, sculpture, furniture, design, and clothing. Through an alter ego he adopts, (known simply as ‘The Lobster’), Colbert mixes elements of art movements from centuries ago alongside everyday symbols of contemporary culture to create strange yet captivating and unique pieces. 

Taking Screw Hunt (2020) for example, the Lobster figure is depicted holding a shield from a Marvel comic book amongst emojis and other pop culture characters within a composition that resembles those of more traditional history paintings. In doing this, Colbert might be attempting to quite literally ‘paint over’ these works of the past. Unlike those traditional works (which were fixed on only traditional aesthetics and subject matters which high society and the art world deemed ‘aesthetically pleasing and acceptable’), Colbert delivers this strong, disruptive and confident aesthetic whilst using these traditional compositions. Through this symbolism, he therefore helps to elevate the status of these works, and show them as worthy of the same level of respect and significance as the history paintings he bears reference to, which are so well accepted by the art world, and featured in the art history books.

Another theme that frequently features in Colbert’s works, which looks to the future rather than the past, are his ideas around ‘the saturation of the digital space’. Colbert’s fascination with the possibility of a fully digitised human dystopia runs wild in his work LOBSTEROPOLIS CITY, a digital exhibition showcasing the ‘metaverse’ of Decentraland, a virtual world that is owned and created by its users

• Yayoi Kusama (Japan)

Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese artist who has become a global sensation. Best known for her polka dots and immersive installations, such as the Mirror Room series. Kusama has always been truly unique in her style and subjects: at the beginning of her career she produced more experimental and disruptive artworks, (such as putting dots on naked people in public), but in her latest works (such as her many Pumpkins), we can see a maturity and calmness created by her polka-dot wonderland and her clever light installations.  

Through the combination of basic repetition and bright eye-catching colours, (signature motifs of Pop Art), her work often hold far more depth than initially meets the eye. They often create complex optical illusions, reflecting an unsettling sense of eternal void, and challenging our certainties with uncertainties (which only continue to shift and change further as we move around the works). Kusama’s visual language seems to echo some of the fearful questions of a postmodern society that seems reluctant to learn from its own mistakes: is life a somewhat meaningless repetition of patterns? 

Her obsession with dots actually started when she started using them to describe what she saw during hallucinations, which became her coping mechanism and medication for her mental illness; creating order out of disorder. After nearly two decades of living in the US, Kusama came back to Japan and voluntarily entered a psychiatric asylum in 1997 to treat her ‘depersonalisation’. She still produces sell-out shows to this day, and if you are based in London you might want to try your luck at securing a ticket to experience two of Kusama’s ‘Infinity Mirror Rooms’ on view at Tate Modern (it is sold out until next March, so better be ready for the next batch of tickets!). 

If you’re keen to learn more about Kusama, have a read of our article The Magic World of Kusama

Although we have only mentioned four popular pop artists out of the many that are out there, if we have missed your favourite please mention their name and why you like them in the comments below and we would love to discuss them with you! 

Next, in the third article of this Pop Art series, we will be talking about some female pop artists you’ll likely never have heard of before, so do keep an eye out for it! 

We believe the Pop Art movement is one of the best at keeping an ongoing dialogue between the art world and society, which makes us quite curious to see how the movement will keep evolving as our society does… What do you think? Do the work of these artists resonate with you? Which artist do you feel is most successful at critiquing modern-day society and why? 

#PhilipColbert #DamienHirst #Buying

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