For the first time, an exhibition seeks to highlight the way artists from across the American continent have grappled with "pop art” — a term that reflects both the noun “popular” as well as the verb “to pop.”
Curated by Duke professor Esther Gabara, “Pop América, 1965-1975” enriches the common notion of pop art by integrating the work of Latin American, U.S. Latino and Chicano artists into the North American-dominated canon. The traveling exhibition opened Oct. 4 in San Antonio, Texas, at the McNay Art Museum and will be on display at the Nasher Museum of Art from Feb. 21 to July 21 before making its final stop at Northwestern University’s Block Museum.
“The very first time I started to think about pop art beyond the Anglophone world that has long dominated its representation in art history and museum exhibitions was back around 2001, when I was looking at Cuban posters from the 1960s,” Gabara wrote in an email.
She was fascinated by the influence that the visual language of consumer culture exerted even on artists working to consolidate the newly established Socialist government. Several years later, when she was co-director of the Global Brazil Lab at the Franklin Humanities Center, she began developing the exhibition. Apart from the academic innovation the hemispheric vision promises, Gabara and her associates explicitly wished to reach a broad audience, which is why as much of it — the catalog, wall texts and many programs — is designed to be bilingual.
Although many classics of pop art, such as Andy Warhol’s “Campbell Soup Cans” (1962) or Roy Lichtenstein’s “Crying Girl” (1964) have long achieved widespread fame and now adorn commercial merchandise, most of their Latin American and Chicano counterparts have remained unknown to modern audiences.
“If Andy Warhol is best known for placing his version of Brillo boxes in art galleries, we see Colombian artist Antonio Caro transforming the Coca-Cola logo into the name of his country,” Gabara wrote. “Both artists are examining the impact of consumer culture on the contemporary art object, on the social spaces of art making and the circulation of images."
The title “Pop América” is taken from a 1968 print by Hugo Rivera Scott, whose work features prominently in the exhibition alongside that of Judith Baca, Luis Cruz Azaceta, Jorge de la Vega and others.
Gabara wrote that she hoped the exhibit would "expand the idea of América and its ideals of freedom and expression.”
Indispensable to the exhibition’s development were both a research team as well as several undergraduate and graduate courses at Duke over the last few years taught by Gabara herself as well as by Natalia de Rose and William Fick. In the current spring semester, students can enroll in ARTHIST390 “Pop América - Politics, History,” which will work closely with the pieces on display.
Imari Genias, a student who took that same class just a year ago, will soon serve as a guide at the Nasher.
“The Pop América exhibit is important to me because it made me reconsider different aspects of American culture,” Genias wrote in an email. The question of what it means to be an American — in the United States or in terms of North and South America — stuck with her long after the course ended.
“When Professor Gabara said that we should reach out if we want to be involved when the exhibit opens at the Nasher, I jumped at the opportunity,” she said.
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Praise for the exhibition has been ample, as it has been awarded the first ever Sotheby’s Prize together with the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago and its exhibition “Many Tongues: Art, Language, and Revolution in the Middle East and South Asia.”
“This exhibition will rewrite our understanding of pop art," said Allan Schwartzman, executive vice president of Sotheby's to the Sotheby's Museum Network. "It shows how it was utilized in Latin America in a way that was more precise and intentional than in some other parts of the world.”
Blending the vibrant colors of advertisements with the politically tumultuous time of the late '60s and early '70s, the pieces on display promise a groundbreaking look at a style much more global than often presumed.
Molly Boarati, the coordinating curator at the Nasher, did most of the logistical work in bringing the collection to Durham. A wide range of educational programs will be offered in conjunction with the exhibition, including an opening curator talk by Professor Gabara Feb. 21 and a free screening of "Olympiada en México" Feb. 28.