Age of excess

Trinity show underscores the American origins of Pop art

Buckhead’s Trinity Gallery celebrates its 20th anniversary with its show, Pop Icons, Modern Masters, which is billed as a “blockbuster exhibition never before seen in the Southeast.” But longer term memories will recall the High Museum’s 2001 Pop Art: Selections from the Museum of Modern Art featuring paintings and sculpture from such key artists as Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein.

Comprised of printed works from series of multiples, Pop Icons features predominately lithographs and screenprints from Jim Dine, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and David Hockney. Placed in an adjoining wing of the gallery are works by Spanish artist Joan Miro, whose mystical sparkles and morphing amoeboid shapes show why the artist’s seductively ambiguous style was embraced by the Surrealists and appropriated by ’50s hotel art for its groovenian landscape.

It’s easy to be disappointed by Pop Icons’ eccentric mix-and-match sampling of work that seems based more on the gallery’s sense of triumph for having secured this high-profile work (also available for sale on various Internet art sites) than it is an exploration of any theme or phase in one of the most important art movements of the 20th century.

There is work from the definitively Pop ’60s through the Cashing-the-Fame checks ’80s. That temporal range is represented by Andy Warhol’s 1968 screenprint of a “Mushroom Soupcan” and 1985 screenprint of “Donald Duck (the New Spirit)” featuring that hotheaded Disney fowl rendered in the kind of gaudy fluorescent pink and gold that seems exemplary of that age of excess.

Time and context change everything. What seems striking in the current reflective, post-9-11 America, is how iconically American this work is, despite Hockney’s British origin and Pop’s often critical approach to popular culture. For both its advertising- and celebrity-obsessed themes, and its exuberant, saucy, color-soaked imagery, Pop seems uniquely, thrillingly American and a far better advertisement for native prosperity and wit than 100 Madison Avenue suits could dream up.

There is comic appeal and also an undeniable energy in a work like Warhol’s “Uncle Sam,” (1981) of a no-nonsense fella whose squiggly outline in red, white and blue makes this patriotic abstraction electric with Studio 54 sex appeal. “I think of myself as an American artist,” Warhol stated, and there is a celebratory aspect to such output that seems lost in more cynical post-Pop work by artists like Tom Sachs.

Pop not only commented upon the American consumer goods flurry of stuff, stuff, stuff — it became its own machine. That was especially true of Warhol, the consummate Henry Ford assembly line innovator, with his frenzy of great eye-catching multiples and his alternative treatment of the American obsessions of celebrity, money and sex.

Typical was the wry, knowing alternative sexuality Pop substituted for the browbeating pinups and starlets of the popular imagination, as in Lichtenstein’s tongue-in-cheek hubba hubba relief print “Nude Reading” or seductively sunbathing “Mermaid” lithograph, both seen in Pop Icons. One of the show’s highlights is David Hockney’s “Cleanliness is Next to Godliness” (1965), a screenprint of a sexy young hunk culled from the pages of a muscle magazine and caught in the shower as he turns his pert rump to the viewer and lathers in a most suggestive manner. Like Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s many camp-oriented films, Hockney brought a gay aesthetic out into the open and helped invent that peculiarly late 20th-century creation, ironic juxtaposition.

Though Trinity’s particular ad hoc choice and combination of printed images may leave much to be desired, Pop Icons’ range of imagery testifies to the unique vantage of Pop: acidic, clever and even strangely optimistic within that critique.