If Pop Art necessarily traffics in the celebrity culture it both glorifies and critiques, is then the notion of a non-famous Pop artist a contradiction in terms? The group exhibition "Sub-Pop" tests this hypothesis by gathering together vintage artworks by lesser known California artists working in that fabulously well known idiom. Among those included are: Vern Blosum, Robert Dowd, Doug Edge, Jim Eller, Phillip Hefferton, Leslie Kerr, Roger Kuntz, Richard Allen Morris, Michael Olodort, Ben Sakoguchi, Jan Stussy, and Norman Zammitt.
As a concept, "Sub-Pop" is organized around some of the initial Pop Art exhibitions of the early nineteen sixties. Along with works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Ed Ruscha, "New Paintings of Common Objects" (Walter Hopps, Pasadena Art Museum, 1962) also included major paintings by Dowd and Hefferton. Likewise, "Pop Art USA" (John Coplans, Oakland Art Museum, 1963) "also included"—please note the pattern developing here—artworks by Blosum, Dowd, Eller, Hefferton, Kerr, Kuntz and Olodort. Additionally, Lucy Lippard's early book on Pop Art featured pieces by Blosum, Dowd, Eller and Hefferton right alongside the most central figures whose images have since been reproduced innumerable times. To be sure, such early shows and books provide just the first draft of what would become the Pop Art canon. Some of these original artists have since left the building of their own accord while others were forcibly evicted as the contours of the canon evolved. Nonetheless, "Sub-Pop" argues that, however much it was later revised, this first draft of history offers significant revelations of its own.
The idea of a "historically important but un-famous Pop Artist" is this show's theorem. Its corollary is that "back then, everyone was a Pop Artist, however briefly." In this second category are artworks on view by Edge, Morris, Sakoguchi, Stussy and Zammitt. A couple of these artists went on to do more recognized work in plastics and resin. Others developed serious careers as painters of the non-Pop or even anti-Pop sort. (An exception here might be Sakoguchi who continues to serve up potent cocktails mixed from equal parts pop-culture comedy and real-world tragedy). Taken together, the artists in this show confirm that the ethos of Pop Art defined the time, though not necessarily in the way it is now remembered.
The history of Pop Art is most often narrated as a brightly polished success story; as an optimistic and affirmative American art style emerging at the very moment of American cultural, political and economic dominance. In this spirit, Warhol defined Pop Art as "saying yes to things." Elite critical opinion, the popular press and art markets all happily agreed. Fame and fortune followed accordingly. "Sub-Pop" at Cardwell Jimmerson Contemporary Art takes a contrary view.
Here the smug success story of Pop Art is replaced by a somewhat more poignant "failure" story, that loaded word defined in the reductive sense bequeathed us by Warhol as simply, "the failure to become famous." When interpreted this way, the artworks in "Sub-Pop" might begin to insinuate into the Pop Art discourse notions of loss, disenchantment, ambivalence, self-rejection and bad conscience—all essential ingredients in the formula for cultural modernism of which Pop Art is purportedly a part. Troubling terms. And yet even failure has its advocates, as when the high modernist Samuel Beckett declaimed: "Ever tried, ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again. Fail better."
Perhaps because failure offers evidence of its own good faith, modernism has always been comfortable with the idea. Pop Art, less so. Thus the critical ambition of "Sub-Pop" is to change that understanding, to defend Pop Art against the lingering suspicions of American triumphalism, market opportunism, "Capitalist Realism," etc. and to return it to the house of modernism with all of the complexities and contradictions that return entails. By virtue of the power of the artworks on display by Blosum, Eller, Dowd, Hefferton, Olodort and the others, but also—and this is no small point—by virtue of their very obscurity, the artists in "Sub-Pop" begin to move us down that path. "Fail better," indeed.
“Sub-Pop” is part of Pacific Standard Time. This unprecedented collaboration, initiated by the Getty, brings together more than sixty cultural institutions from across Southern California for six months beginning October 2011 to tell the story of the birth of the L.A. art scene.
Pacific Standard Time is an initiative of the Getty. The presenting sponsor is Bank of America.