A Canon Long Familiar

Zwirner & Wirth’s pop retrospective is reassuringly strong and iconic

This assembled collection of early to mid-‘60s artworks by Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Roy Lichtenstein and Konrad Lueg has an overall effect similar to seeing the Elgin Marbles for the first time.

It as if these particular works of art ring vague familiar bells. We have seen them before, but not quite in this way. The works are all in the medium–sized range, nothing more than four by five feet at most, and are all at least 40 years old. They are quiet and show a slight patina of age. The paintings and painted sculptures all look a touch darker and dimmer than they must have been when first shown. These are the original sources of many subsequent works; in fact, this represents Day One in Art History for a goodly amount of the contemporary art world.

One thing that is immediately striking is how “Pop” has such strong elements of classicism. Warhol’s “Four Marilyns” and “Twelve Jackies” and various Campbell’s Soups and Brillo cartons as well as Oldenburg’s “Plate of Meat” and Richter’s “Toilet Paper” all appear here as if classical fragments––a group of heads, broken pedestals and vessels. Warhol’s work is also particularly melancholy, another classical element. The exhibition also has a four-foot-square “Flowers” from 1964 that carries the same pull of muffled, anxious melodrama as a Manet painting. The little overexposed pansies seem to puff out their last breath of life at the viewer.

Lueg, relatively unknown here, had a double life; he was also known as Konrad Fischer and ran one of the most important German galleries, showing Blinky Palermo and Carl Andre early on. The Lueg works here don’t have quite the impact of the others, though there is a level of cute irony that has become a familiar contemporary language. The Lichtensteins’ “benday” and even Polke’s dot patterns, known as “raster” in his native Germany, bring out the Impressionist inheritance deep in the background of their influence.

It simply comes as a surprise, again, how very good these artists were and are.

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