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The best Pop Art in NYC

Check out our list of the essential works of Pop Art painting and sculpture in New York City’s top museums

Photograph: Courtesy MoMA

Pop Art was born in the early 1960s, and though it would become international in scope, it’s true home was New York City. In 1962, for instance, Andy Warhol founded the original Factory on East 47th Street in Midtown before moving it in 1967 to its better-known address on Union Square West (it would move once again in 1973 to a building nearby). Meanwhile, Uptown, Leo Castelli hosted the first shows of Pop Art in his namesake gallery. Given this Gotham pedigree, it’s not surprising that the collections of the top art museums like MoMA and the Whitney contain some of the best examples of Pop Art in the world—not just by such familiar American names as Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist, but also by European artists such as Arman and Sigmar Polke. Filled with bright colors and attention-getting imagery, Pop Art was welcomed in the early 1960s as relief from the existential portentousness of Abstract Expressionism. But Pop Art wasn’t all Soup Cans and Marilyn Monroes: Much of it bounced off the anxieties of a midcentury consumer society living under the the threat of nuclear annihilation. Pop Art encompassed disparate strands, a diversity you can see in our list of the best Pop Art in New York City.

Best Pop Art in NYC

1
Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954–55

Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954–55

The Museum of Modern Art, New York

In the early postwar years, New York’s art scene was dominated by the Abstract Expressionism. By the 1950s, however, younger artists rejected AbEx’s sturm und drang and began to employ objects and images borrowed from everyday life. One of them was Jasper Johns, whose painting Flag caused a sensation. A Southerner by birth, Johns said the idea of painting the American flag came to him in a dream. Taking up the entire canvas, John’s image didn’t just depict a flag, but sort of became one too.

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/pazzambra

2
Arman, Boom! Boom!, 1960

Arman, Boom! Boom!, 1960

The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Just as Pop Art got started here, a variant developed in France called Nouveau Réalisme—which, like its American counterpart, looked to daily life as a source for materials and inspiration. One improtant figure in that movement was Armand Fernandez, who went by his first name. Arman was known for his “accumulations” of found objects, like the toy pistols in this satirical look at the prevalence of violence in society.

Museum of Modern Art; NY © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS); New York/ADAGP; Paris

3
Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962

Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962

The Museum of Modern Art

Before he became known as an artist, Warhol was a graphic designer and he incorporated both the ethos and the tools of that trade into his artwork. The bluntness of his iconic soup cans—repeated in the same way you’d find them on a supermarket shelf—made no distinction between fine art and the commercial variety. Though works by other Pop artists had preceded Soup Cans, it made Pop Art a household name.

The Museum of Modern Art; New York; © 2017 Andy Warhol Foundation/ARS; NY/TM Licensed by Campbell's Soup Co; all rights reserved

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4
Yayoi Kusama, Accumulation No. 1, 1962

Yayoi Kusama, Accumulation No. 1, 1962

The Museum of Modern Art, New York

The Japanese artist famous for Op-py Pop-y dots and mind-blowing mirrored “Infinity Rooms” created this armchair covered with stuff-fabric phallic protuberances early in her career, while she was working in New York. With its surreal mix of domestic and erotic, the work still seems startling today.

The Museum of Modern Art; NY © 2017 Yayoi Kusama

5
Edward Ruscha, OOF, 1962

Edward Ruscha, OOF, 1962

The Museum of Modern Art, New York, © 2017 Edward Ruscha

A seminal Los Angles painter, Edward Ruscha received his initial exposure at the legendary Ferus Gallery, which played a key role in establishing L.A. as a major art center. Ruscha’s work was distinguished by his use of text, as in this bold rendering of comic-book onomatopoeia.

Museum of Modern Art; NY © 2017 Edward Ruscha

6
Billy Al Bengston, Sterling, 1963

Billy Al Bengston, Sterling, 1963

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Another Ferus Gallery alum, Bengston’s work exemplified the slick “Finish-Fetish” aesthetic of SoCal art through paintings that combined logos and symbols with spray-lacquer backgrounds, like this set of sergeant’s stripes haloed by marquee lights.

Whitney Museum of American Art

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7
Roy Lichtenstein, Drowning Girl, 1963

Roy Lichtenstein, Drowning Girl, 1963

The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Lichtenstein's Pop icon is at once a coolly ironic deconstruction of pulp melodrama and a formally dynamic—even moving—composition, thanks largely to the interplay of the subject's hair (swept into a perfect Mad Men–era coif) and the waves (which seem to have wandered in from a Hokusai print) threatening her. The image, a crop from a panel in an early-’60s comic book titled Run for Love!, shows that Lichtenstein’s in full command of his style, employing not only by his well-known Ben-Day dots, but also bold black lines corralling areas of deep blue. It's a complete stunner.

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/omino 71; The Museum of Modern Art; New York

8
Allan D’Arcangelo, Madonna and Child, 1963

Allan D’Arcangelo, Madonna and Child, 1963

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

D’Arcangelo pioneered a flat Pop-figural approach that touched upon other styles such as Precisionism and Minimalism. He’s best known for schematic views of highway center lines and shoulders converging towards a vanishing point on the horizon, as free-floating road signs and gas station logos appear to flash by. Painted the same year as JFK’s assassination, Madonna and Child features a faceless Jackie and Caroline Kennedy wreathed in halos. The image, minus the religious symbols, was borrowed from the cover of a photography magazine of the time.

Whitney Museum of American Art; New York

9
Marisol, Women and Dog, 1963–64

Marisol, Women and Dog, 1963–64

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Another Pop artist who went by her first name, Marisol Escobar (a French artist of Venezuelan heritage) was arguably something of a precursor to the Feminists of the 1970s, as her work focused on the postwar restraints put on women after the period of relative independence they enjoyed during during World War II. Marisol satirized social conventions, with the nuclear family being a frequent target. She flavored her sculptures with references to fashion, movies, advertising and South American folk art.

Whitney Museum of American Art; New York

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10
James Rosenquist, F-111, 1964–65

James Rosenquist, F-111, 1964–65

The Museum of Modern Art, New York, © 2011 James Rosenquist/Licensed by VAGA, New York

Rosenquist supported himself for period as a billboard painter working in Time Square, and later incorporated the techniques, style and imagery he encountered on the job into his art. His magnum opus, F-111, possesses the scale and impact of a billboard, but instead of trying to sell you something, it presents a panorama of Cold-War paranoia colliding with the dream state of consumerism. The composition layers images of products (light bulbs, tires, spaghetti) over a military jet in a series of wry juxtapositions. The proximity of a mushroom cloud to a young girl under a hair dryer underscores the cautionary tone of this icon of the Atomic Age.

The Museum of Modern Art; New York; © 2011 James Rosenquist/Licensed by VAGA; New York

11
Claes Oldenburg, Soft Dormeyer Mixer, 1965

Claes Oldenburg, Soft Dormeyer Mixer, 1965

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Oldenburg became famous for sending up the grandeur of monumental sculpture with his enlargements of common household items and foodstuffs. In addtion to playing with our preconceptions of scale, Oldenburg messed with our expectations of hard and soft: Besides being huge, his vision of an eggbeater is sewn out of vinyl stuffed with kapok like a plush-toy.

Whitney Museum of American Art; New York

12
Robert Indiana, LOVE, 1967

Robert Indiana, LOVE, 1967

The Museum of Modern Art, New York

No work aside from Warhol’s is as associated with Pop Art in the public imagination as Robert Indiana’s LOVE. Made at the height of counterculture, LOVE appropriates as its theme a sentiment synonymous with hippies. But in a move that could almost be taken for satire, the work corporatizes its subject through the sort of graphic design found on Madison Avenue. It’s unclear whether Indiana was kidding, but it any case most people believed that LOVE was sincere: Millions of posters, greeting cards, mugs and other merchandising plastered with the image have been sold. Unlike most Pop Artists, Indiana didn’t borrow a logo to use in his work: He created one.

The Museum of Modern Art; New York

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13
Richard Hamilton, Swingeing London 67 (c), 1968-69

Richard Hamilton, Swingeing London 67 (c), 1968-69

The Museum of Modern Art, New York

While Pop Art may have originally been an American phenomenon, it had been anticipated by a group of British artists associated with the London ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art)—among them, Richard Hamilton. A case could be made that he coined the term “pop” years before Warhol et al, in a small 1956 collage he made of images clipped from ads and comic books titled, Just what was it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?. The piece was dominated by a bodybuilder holding a Tootsie-Pop, with the word “Pop” put front and center. Hamilton never considered himself a Pop Artist, though popular culture often figured in his work. This image was based on a photo of Mick Jagger and art dealer Robert Fraser after their arrest on drug charges in London in 1967.

The Museum of Modern Art; NY © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS); New York/DACS; London

14
Peter Saul, Saigon, 1967

Peter Saul, Saigon, 1967

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

A San Francisco native, Saul spent his early career as an artist in Europe, where he developed a painterly, abstract style inspired by Willem de Kooning. But in the late 1950s, he began to incorporate such cartoon characters into his work as Superman and Donald Duck. Returning to San Francisco in 1964, Saul perfected his signature style: A raucous blend of hot colors, overall composition, pop-culture references, Surrealism and Expressionism. Saul used this mix to send up art history and to offer scabrous political commentary, as in this image painted at the height of the Vietnam War.

Whitney Museum of American Art; New York

15
Sigmar Polke, Spiderman, 1971-74

Sigmar Polke, Spiderman, 1971-74

The Museum of Modern Art, New York

In the early 1960s, Polke, along with fellow German artists Gerhard Richter, Manfred Kuttner and Konrad Lueg, started what’s often been called Germany’s equivalent to Pop Art: Capitalist Realism. More of a collaborative art project than a movement, Capitalist Realism advanced a critique of pop culture rooted in Germany’s denial of its Nazi past—a collective amnesia that found expression in the consumption of cars, appliances, TVs and other signifiers of mid-century middle-class aspirations. Capitalist Realism faded quickly as Polke and Richter pursued increasingly high-profile careers. Both continued to base the works on images drawn from ads, newspapers and magazines, but Polke’s style always seemed more in keeping with the spirit of American Pop Art, especially when he employed comic book characters, like the one of Spiderman here.

The Museum of Modern Art; NY © 2017 Estate of Sigmar Polke / Artists Rights Society (ARS); New York/VG Bild-Kunst; Bonn; Germany

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