What is Pop Art? Techniques, Artists, and Examples that Shaped the Movement

Andy Warhol, “Campbell's Soup I,” screenprint on paper (1968). Sold for $852,500 via Sotheby's (October 2017).

Perhaps the most well-known artistic development of the 20th century, Pop art emerged in reaction to consumerism, mass media, and popular culture. This movement surfaced in the 1950s and gained major momentum throughout the sixties. Pop art transitioned away from the theory and methods used in Abstract Expressionism, the leading movement that preceded it. Instead, it drew upon everyday objects and media like newspapers, comic books, magazines, and other mundane objects to produce vibrant compositions, establishing the movement as a cornerstone of contemporary art.

This introduction of identifiable imagery was a major shift from the direction of modernism, which Pop artists considered empty and elitist. Many artists associated with the movement—most notably Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein—achieved unprecedented fame and status, an experience that brought practitioners closer to mainstream celebrity. Today, Pop art is one of the most instantly recognizable forms of art.

What is Pop Art?

Pop art is a movement that emerged in the mid-20th century in which artists incorporated commonplace objects—comic strips, soup cans, newspapers, and more—into their work. The Pop art movement aimed to solidify the idea that art can draw from any source, and there is no hierarchy of culture to disrupt this.

A Brief History of Pop Art

Antonio Caro, “Colombia,” 1977. Sold for $10,000 via Phillips (May 2014).

Pop art began in the mid-1950s in Britain by a group of painters, sculptors, writers, and critics called Independent Group. It spread soon after into the United States. Much of the movement’s roots were prompted by a cultural revolution led by activists, thinkers, and artists who aimed to restructure a social order ruled by conformity. The movement spread quickly, and many believe that U.K. Pop pioneer Richard Hamilton‘s 1956 collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? marked the official beginning of the cultural phenomenon after it appeared in Whitechapel Gallery in London.

Hamilton described the movement’s characteristics writing, “Pop art is: Popular (designed for a mass audience), Transient (short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low cost, Mass produced, Young (aimed at youth), Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big business.” After the movement burst onto the scene in the United States, it quickly spread across the globe and continues to influence fine art and popular culture today.

Pop Art Characteristics

Kusama Yayoi, “Hat,” 1929. Sold for ¥100,000 via Est-Ouest Auctions Co.,Ltd (July 2009).

Pop art is easily recognizable due to its vibrancy and unique characteristics that are present in many of the most iconic works of the movement. Below are some of the defining characteristics of of Pop art:

  • Recognizable imagery: Pop art utilized images and icons from popular media and products. This included commercial items like soup cans, road signs, photos of celebrities, newspapers, and other items popular in the commercial world. Even brand names and logos were incorporated.
  • Bright colors: Pop art is characterized by vibrant, bright colors. Primary colors red, yellow, and blue were prominent pigments that appeared in many famous works, particularly in Roy Lichtenstein’s body of work.
  • Irony and satire: Humor was one of the main components of Pop art. Artists use the subject matter to make a statement about current events, poke fun at fads, and challenge the status quo.
  • Innovative techniques: Many Pop artists engaged in printmaking processes, which enabled them to quickly reproduce images in large quantities. Andy Warhol used silkscreen printing, a process through which ink is transferred onto paper or canvas through a mesh screen with a stencil. Roy Lichtenstein used lithography, or printing from a metal plate or stone, to achieve his signature visual style. Pop artists often took imagery from other areas of mainstream culture and incorporated it into their artworks, either altered or in its original form. This type of Appropriation art often worked hand in hand with repetition to break down the separation between high art and low art, which made the distinction between advertising and media from fine art.
  • Mixed media and collage: Pop artists often blended materials and utilized a variety of different types of media. Like Robert Rauschenberg, whose works anticipated the Pop art movement, artists Tom Wesselmann and Richard Hamilton combined seemingly disparate images into a single canvas to create a thoroughly modern form of narrative. Similarly, Marisol is known for sculptures that use many a variety of different materials to represent figures.

Pop Artists Who Defined the Movement

Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol. Sold for $17,327,500 via Sotheby’s (May 1998).

Andy Warhol’s name has become synonymous with American Pop art. Warhol’s works typify many aspects of the movement, like an obsession with celebrity, the repetition of images, and the use of advertising as subject matter. His most notable series include “Campbell’s Soup Cans,” depictions of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and “Death and Disaster.” Warhol collaborated with artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and commercial brands like Perrier. He eventually opened an artist’s studio called “The Factory,” which served as a workshop for Warhol’s art-making—as well as a hangout for bohemians.

Roy Lichtenstein

Roy Lichtenstein, “Foot and Hand” (1964). Sold for $14000 via Dane Fine Art Auctions (August 2018).

Another iconic American Pop artist is Roy Lichtenstein. Known for his use of primary colors and bold outlines, Lichtenstein’s signature style referenced the comic books from which he derived much of his early source material. Even in later series of works, Lichtenstein used Ben-Day dots to evoke the comic style across his canvases and sculptures. Like Warhol and Lichtenstein, Ed Ruscha and James Rosenquist took subject matter from print media to create riffs on signage that exemplified the cultural zeitgeist.

Robert Rauschenberg

Rauschenberg radically blended materials and methods to create remarkable Pop art collages, incorporating popular imagery from the time period in which he existed. One of his most notable works, Retroactive II, created in 1964, was a silkscreen image that featured a portrait of John F. Kennedy and a NASA astronaut among other images mixed and recombined in a interesting way.

David Hockney

David Hockney helped pioneer the British Pop art movement in the 1960s, creating semi-abstract paintings and experimenting with a wide range of media. His 1967 work, A Bigger Splash was one of multiple Pop art paintings that centered around swimming pools, a fascination that grew after he moved to California and recognized the relaxed, sensual way by which residents lived in that area.

Female Pop Artists

Evelyne Axell, “La directrice aux fruits,” 1972. Sold for €50,000 via Cornette de Saint-Cyr-Bruxelles (December 2016).

Female Pop artists are often excluded from the traditional narrative of the movement, but many played a pivotal role throughout their careers. Playwright and avant-garde artist Rosalyn Drexler, conceptual and Pop artist Marisol, and Belgian painter Evelyne Axell all contributed to the success of the Pop movement. Today, more female Pop artists are being featured in museum shows and auctions thanks to these trailblazers.

Pop Art Facts

  • The first work of Pop art was created by Scottish artist Eduardo Paolozzi in 1952. It was a collage made from magazines called I was a Rich Man’s Plaything.
  • Pop art was originally called Propaganda art.
  • Andy Warhol designed the iconic album artwork for The Velvet Underground’s debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico.
  • The Souper Dress, a throwaway garment inspired by Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can series, was manufactured by the Campbell Soup Company in 1966–67.
  • Pop art’s use of found objects and images can be traced back to the Dada movement in the early 1900s.
  • Artists like Jeff Koons and Claes Oldenburg satirized everyday objects by depicting them in monumental proportions. Oldenburg’s iconic pieces include giant ice cream scoops, spoons, clothespins, and more.
  • The most expensive Warhol ever sold was Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), which he created in 1963. It sold for $105 million in 2013.

Pop art spread across virtually all facets of society, first through artist collaborations in design and music, and later when new generations of artists became inspired by the mid-century style. In the 1980s, some postmodern artists worked under the banner of “Neo-Pop.” These artists, including Jeff Koons, continued taking items from everyday life and incorporating them into their works of art.

Today, the mantle of Pop art is being taken up by artists like Japanese phenom Takashi Murakami. Murakami coined the term “Superflat” to describe his art, which refers to its graphic nature inspired by anime, pop culture, and consumerism. In addition, Street artists like Banksy have been influenced by the legacy of Pop art, using stencils and graphic design to achieve a similar aesthetic in their works.

Because Pop art near perfectly mimics the aspects of society that it reacts to, its impact on culture in the United States and beyond is, at this point, immeasurable.

Sources: The Art Story | Tate | My Modern Met | MoMa | Encyclopedia Britannica | Art Hearty