By Susan Froyd
By Byron Graham
By Robin Edwards
By Bree Davies
By Josiah M. Hesse
By Bree Davies
By Susan Froyd
By Kate Gibbons
Takano and Kawashima use expressionist brushwork -- a very un-pop thing to do. More in line with neo-pop are their references to cutesy kids' stuff. The women in both of these paintings look like they could be illustrations in children's books.
Across from the three views of women is "Totem," a painted, carved-plywood wall piece by the late Keith Haring. The piece is covered -- or, more accurately, inscribed -- with the post-pop artist's signature stick figures. Another characteristic Haring is "Pyramid," from 1989, a screen print on aluminum that hangs in the museum's coffee shop.
Like many of his pop-art mentors, Haring was gay; camp, an element of the gay sensibility, was an important influence on pop artists and, to a much lesser extent, on the post-pop artists who emerged in the 1980s and the neo-pop artists who came after. In "Totem," a standing male figure reaches for two dancing men. The gay content in pop and post-pop is a thread that's not picked up in this show, despite the inclusion of Haring and several other artists widely known to be gay. Haring died of AIDS in 1990.
Just beyond Haring's "Totem" are three pieces based on Japanese children's-book characters, but here's the twist: They're by Tom Sachs, a New York artist. These neo-pop pieces reveal influences that boomerang with the cross-pollination of sources from New York to Tokyo and back. The imagery Sachs uses is reminiscent of those famous Hello Kitty characters. (In fact, a painting of the well-known feline is hanging upstairs.)
More expected from an American neo-pop artist are references to good old Yankee Doodle pop art. At first glance, you might think that Brenda Zlamany's "Warhol Flower #1," an oil on canvas on panel, is actually by Andy Warhol -- but only at first glance.
Several things clue us in to the piece's origins. It's very painterly, for one thing, and Warhols, for the most part, are not. And while the pairing of panels -- in this case, a red monochrome canvas and a floral one -- is typical of Warhol, his panels were always the same size, and Zlamany's monochrome panel is much smaller.
If you look past the Zlamany and across the big room, a real Warhol print that's essentially the same floral piece comes into view. The Warhol is a color-screen print titled "Flowers," from 1970. This visual comparison of the two pieces is one of the show's great moments, and it emphasizes director Payton's skill in exhibition design.
On that same far wall is Warhol's famous "Mao," a screen print from 1972. It's amazing how contemporary both of these Warhols appear, even though they're three decades old.
Warhol is referenced in the show's title, along with Japanese neo-pop whiz Takashi Murakami, arguably the most important contemporary artist in Japan.
A fabulous Murakami is hanging right next to "Mao." Called "Melting DOB B," the 1999 acrylic on canvas depicts a surrealist child wearing Mickey Mouse ears. The composition is wonderful, as is the tight and hard-edged execution. Murakami creates his work in a factory, à la Warhol, and gives credit to the cast of assistants who carry out his pieces.
Nearby are other Murakamis, notably a box painting, 1997's "Klein's Pot C," and the haunting "Atomic Bomb," from 1999, both of which are acrylic on canvas. Upstairs, Payton has hung a group of working drawings by Murakami that provide instructions to his assistants, including not only the formal designs he wants, but the colors that are to be used, indicated by sample strips taped to the drawings. There's a wonderfully informal quality to these paper works.
Back downstairs, across from the Warhols and the Murakami paintings, is a well-known pop piece from 1972, the four-part "Love," by Robert Indiana. Again, it's astounding how well this piece has held up. The famous image is of the word 'love' all in capitals, one letter per sheet, arranged on two lines. In this version, the letters are in white on a field of blue and red. Next to it is a marvelous robe print by Jim Dine.
One disappointing feature of the show is that Payton failed to connect it to Colorado art -- and not only could she easily have done so, but she typically does. Several artists come to mind, particularly John Haeseler. Although he has not been active for the past several years, that doesn't change the fact that from the mid-'70s to the mid-'90s, Haeseler was the most significant post-pop artist in the area. Others that could have been included are Floyd Tunson, Roland Bernier, Jack Balas, emerging artist Colin Livingston and many more.
Surveying POPjack, I came to the inevitable conclusion that the classic pop pieces by Warhol, Indiana, Dine and a raft of others blow away everything else here. One obvious reason is that the neo and post-pop works, whether American or Japanese, are based on the older pieces and therefore can't possibly equal them. But pop art was a watershed movement of the mid- to late twentieth century, and its stylistic heirs are not part of a subsequent one.
The power of pop is made even clearer by the fact that none of the pop pieces included could even remotely be called major works, since all of them are prints. Yet as modest as they are, these older pieces stand up against the newer ones; the fact that the recent works are full-blown examples in the form of paintings and sculptures doesn't help them out at all.
Minor shortcomings aside, Payton's POPjack is a strong and interesting exhibit, and one of its greatest strengths is that it introduces a heretofore almost entirely unknown topic -- contemporary Japanese art -- to Denver while placing it in the context of American art history.
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