An uneven survey of Pop art culled from the Whitney Museum’s permanent collection, “Sinister Pop” fittingly embodies the fractures of the 1960s: sex versus sexism, protest versus violence, politics versus demagoguery.
Consider what we might term the “Tan-line School.” In a 1969 series of lithographs, Mel Ramos paired comely nudes with endangered bird species; like a Vargas-girl punchline, the joke behind Balled Eagle is as pale as the naked model’s exposed breasts. Trying harder, Tom Wesselmann’s Great American Nude, #57 (1964) imagines a literally eyeless woman reclining on leopard fur, her undulating, sun-branded flesh punctuated by pouty mouth, blurry nipples, and downy pubic thatch. This wing of Pop, which wryly comments on the objectification of women while simultaneously stoking the male gaze, is starting to look as dated as The Dean Martin Show (without the occasional bursts of nonchalant humor).
At the same time that Dino was toasting the Golddiggers on his highly rated variety hour, some female artists were going hammer and tongs at America’s various old boys’ clubs. Scrawled in charcoal with fulminating rawness, the erect penises in Judith Bernstein’s collage Vietnam Garden (1967) act as tombstones surrounded by steel wool pubes. Another Bernstein collage from the same year includes a graffiti dick poking President Johnson, with the notation “101,034 U.S. killed wounded or missing in Vietnam.” Polemics trumped Bernstein’s aesthetic, but the work’s ferocity raises questions about how current public opinion might be different if our present wars were fueled by a military draft and resulted in such high body counts.
Rosalyn Drexler beautifully fused content and composition in her powerful, primary-colored canvas Love and Violence (1965). In the top half of the painting, an ominous gent paws a blond woman against a bright red background; below, trench-coated toughs brawl across a grid of blue panels. Drexler’s image is sophisticatedly structured, with stark shadow lines threaded through the divergently scaled figures to deliver an animated wallop. Compare this to a nearby Alex Katz portrait of a man smoking a cigar, painted on a contoured freestanding sheet of aluminum. This pseudo-sculptural gimmick only draws attention to the enervated paint handling and wan color. (Drexler was inexcusably left out of the Met’s huge “Regarding Warhol” show, while a typically banal Katz portrait wasted space on one of the walls, another proof that the Pop canon is way overdue for reassessment.)
War and domestic violence weren’t the only evils that fueled Pop’s darker side. Before he came up with the “I Love NY” logo, graphic design master Milton Glaser attacked the heinous treatment of migrant farm workers in his 1969 poster of a skull fashioned from grapes, which includes a César Chávez quote across the bottom: “We are men locked in a death struggle against man’s inhumanity to man.” More enigmatically, Allan D’Arcangelo delivered baleful allure in his 1964 painting of a blank interstate sign fronting a highway vanishing into dark woods.
But it is Peter Saul’s huge 1967 canvas Saigon that most rapturously upends Pop’s stereotypical celebration of American excess. GIs with tongues the size of skateboards and cannons for dicks rape pneumatically buxom Vietnamese gals and guzzle cola, everything dripping in hallucinatory hues. Saul’s flower-power Guernica warns that he who dehumanizes his enemy becomes him.
Heavy freight for a movement that began with comic strips and soup cans.