We Are Pop People

From Art Journal 71, no. 4 (Winter 2012)

Hal Foster. The First Pop Age: Painting and Subjectivity in the Art of Hamilton, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Richter, and Ruscha. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012. 338 pp., 77 color ill., 80 b/w. $29.95

Anyone seeking a crisp argument for the importance of contemporary art history should welcome the introduction of Hal Foster’s latest book, The First Pop Age. Foster justifies his careful look back at five key Pop artists by persuasively arguing that their work reveals and investigates a new stage, ascendant in the early 1960s, in the history of capitalist culture. In this period, modernity was reshaped by a growing image fetishism and thereby “raised to a second degree” (13). The result was no less than a transformation in the conditions of human identity, “a shift,” as Foster writes, “in the status of . . . subjectivity” (5). The author memorably calls this period (and his book) “the first Pop Age,” while cautioning that his doing so is an indulgence in a useful periodizing fiction. Pop art matters today, Foster claims, because it managed to capture this historical shift and its effects, ably representing, in exaggerated form, the new “glossy world” of postwar life. Looked at carefully now, the art offers no less than an implicit “theory of consumer capitalism” and of its effects on the lives of contemporary people (13).1

More than an argument for the value of his own book, this set of claims, briskly laid out, offers a model for what art history might now aim to achieve. Foster articulates high ambitions for art’s potential role in the telling of history, and, importantly, he sees art as often self-contradictory, as performing representational, not just critical, functions. Indeed, Foster sketches out a subtly complicated relationship between Pop art and the culture of capitalist consumerism that it digests. He does not ask the art to remain stably negative, admitting that Pop’s politics are “lite” (250) and citing Richard Hamilton’s characterization of his art as “an ironism of affirmation” (21). Rather, Foster wants Pop to help produce a deeper and more accurate understanding of recent experience, spec­ifically to help characterize the apparently affectless, traumatized, and ethereal contemporary subject. Here the author distances himself from the black-and-white moral taxonomy that plagues some contemporary art history and seems even to be gently reshaping the brasher claims for art’s critic­ality that he articulated in his 1996 essay “Who’s Afraid of the Neo-Avant-Garde?”2

What then unfolds is the definitive book on Pop and subjectivity. It is a book we have needed for some time. It is only a bonus, then, that The First Pop Age is such a pleasure to read. Foster’s voice is lively and bright; one has the feeling of listening to a series of captivating scholarly talks, ideas tumbling out as if effortlessly. The compact volume is simply designed but lushly illustrated, a perfect size for toting and dipping into, one essay at a time. Most of the chapters have appeared in previous versions, but they benefit from being brought together. Although not in the order in which they appear, I will now treat each in turn.

The chapter on Roy Lichtenstein, like many parts of the book, traces Pop’s place in the formal-structural history of art. The chapter underscores that Lichtenstein owed as much to Picasso’s semiotic inquiries as he did to the luminous banalities of the supermarket, and Foster repeats Lichtenstein’s observation that even cheap comics appropriate the formal devices of Cubism. Foster pays particular attention to Pop’s ambivalent position in the historical fate of the tableau, associating the demise of that form to the modern history of the subject.

Even more important to Foster, however, is Lichtenstein’s acuity as an observer of the mediation of all things by capitalist technologies. Specifically, Foster notes Lichtenstein’s implicit discovery that “almost anything might be reformatted as an image” (79). The artist’s quotations of Claude Monet’s paintings of Rouen Cathedral, for example, demonstrate that even in the nineteenth century, technical seriality was already remaking experience. More centrally, Lichtenstein’s shiny rib roasts, tough sailors, and drooping heroines mimic the appearance and procedures of several central spheres of contem­porary life, specifically “the industrial,” “the informational,” and “the commercial.” Such paintings and sculptures amount to—and here Foster explicitly follows Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno—“a critical redoubling of lived conditions in consumer capitalism” (79). Foster connects the artist’s investigations of subjectivity to his investigations of form when he offers a welcome close reading of several of the neglected late sculptures—works Foster sees as investigating the possibilities for invention in a reified artistic culture.

Near the end of the chapter, Foster poses his most interesting question on Lichtenstein, asking directly, “What kind of subjectivity is modeled by a Lichtenstein painting” (99). (By this point in the book, the reader knows that, in using the verb “modeled,” Foster means both that the art represents the regrettably constrained possibilities for contemporary subjectivity and that it proposes, if in a limited way, some alternatives.) By way of articulating an answer, then, Foster identifies aspects in American popular culture that line up in one way or another with Lichtenstein’s life and work. He writes, for example, that in the stage of modernity in question, it is not art and literature but rather comic books, movies, and a generally techno-militarized culture that teach people ways of being. Recalling Lichtenstein’s early training in a “flash lab” for the development of rapid visual acuity, Foster argues that not only the combat paintings but the very simplicity of all the artist’s motifs imply “that a targeting subject has arisen in the military-consumerist complex of postwar America.” This subject, he adds, “complicates, even negates, the contemplative subject of the traditional tableau as well as the transcendental subject of the modernist painting” (103, emphasis mine). More generally, Lichtenstein’s art helps to reveal a shift “away from the old notion of a self-made ego (whether of the romantic or the existentialist type) toward a new view of the individual as structured by a symbolic order that precedes him or her” (101).3

The following chapter, “Andy Warhol, or the Distressed Image,” is the strongest in an excellent book—a significant contribution to the huge literature on Warhol. As its title signals, the chapter reads Warhol’s art as preoccupied with disease and distress, in forms ranging from hernias and torn product labels to suicide and even to the gashes of imperfectly inked silkscreens. At the beginning, Foster lightly reprises his earlier Lacanian reading of this tendency, reusing some phrases from his 1996 reading of Warhol’s work as a “screen” for the registration of trauma.4 But his central interest now lies elsewhere, specifically with the great Pop figure’s “strategy of mimetic exacerbation.” “If you can’t beat the system,” he imagines Warhol saying, “join it; more, if you enter it totally, you might expose it” (110).

The chapter is particularly concerned with how Pop-age individuals manage their own projected identities. Foster looks briefly at Warhol’s own struggles, in the 1950s, to settle on a self-image, and he notes that even the artist’s later iconicity was won largely through the extra-personal armature of glasses and wig. Considering then the artist’s predilection for photo booth strips as the basis for portraits, Foster compares the resulting works to earlier kinds of photography. Whereas the duration of nineteenth-century film exposure allowed sitters to cultivate “a strong sense of inward self,” Warhol’s use of the repetitively flashing booth amounts to a “drill,” a harsh exercise corrosive to “this building block of the traditional self” (151, 155).5 The portraits of celebrities, usually made by reusing journalistic and PR photographs, are, among other things, exceptional demonstrations of how all Pop-age subjects must labor to produce themselves as images. A simple nod in the direction of a 1962 painting of Natalie Wood—with its absences, occlusions, and especially the desperate effect that emerges with that smile’s repetition—is enough to make the case that, in these paintings, “the making up of the subject vies with its breaking down, and often loses” (156).

Foster concludes the chapter with a reading of the Screen Tests, moving this Factory-era series to the center of Warhol’s legacy, where it certainly belongs. These are short silent films, each shot in about three minutes, but intended to be screened in a slight but painful slow-motion. In general they each depict a single sitter who has been told to face forward, motionlessly. Such works elongate the harsh testing conditions of the photo booth, Foster argues, leaving the sitter an impossibly long period in which “to project a self-image as best he or she can” (165). The sitters’ many strategies for surviving the ordeal—looking away, smiling, mugging, donning sunglasses, or just trying, resolutely, to stare down the camera—usually end up looking desperate. The viewer (disconnected in time and space) may empathize, but there is “no humanist redemption,” Foster writes. More often than not, “the apparatus triumphs” (168).

It is indeed a test that these films enact, and Foster writes that they play at treating their subjects just as the neoliberal economy does: as “so much capital to be shaped and reshaped” (170).6 He adds, however, that the Screen Tests do not merely mimic the spirit of recent capitalism but rather “might be understood to resist it, however obliquely” (171). Most important, the films do so by disturbing the psychic production of ideology—by interrupting our palliative understandings of reality and our places in it. Whereas the absorptive and pleasurable narrative of Hollywood film reassuringly stokes the ideological function, Warhol’s art “breaks both [the] hypnotic and [the] fetishistic effects” of capitalized image consumption (171). In other words, this inverted mimicry opens a tear in the fabric of consumer subjectivity—a potential means for imagining a better way of being.

Foster’s fourth chapter, “Gerhard Richter, or the Photogenic Image,” easily lays to rest a hard-fought debate about this important artist, beloved by the academy and the public alike. Foster efficiently synthesizes the major strands of the vast Richter literature, concluding that this art occupies a variable and tender position on that great cultural continuum between humanist expressivity and its critical negation. The abstract paintings, he writes, read both as loaded with mean-ingful gesture and drained of it, “like the marks of an Abstract Expressionist with Alzheimer’s” (183). Constantly toying with the possibility of mounting a credible lyricism in the present, Richter’s work aims for beauty while also demonstrating its “tense” and “hackneyed” character (205; the adjectives are translated from Richter’s own words). Taking this synthesis one step further, Foster adds that Richter stands, in many respects, not so far from the transcendental modernist critic Michael Fried. It is just that the German artist’s sensibility is more elaborately attuned to the difficulties, even absurdities, of trying now to produce expressive art with moral consequences.

Less directly concerned about subjectivity than other parts of the book, the Richter chapter touches on the artist’s interest in the longstanding German philosophical problem of schein (rendered in Foster’s chapter most often as “semblance”). Foster also discusses Richter’s engagement with photography’s unification of the traumatic with the banal, but he settles particularly, as signaled in the chapter title, on Richter’s views into the “photogenic” quality of late modern experience. This term denotes for Foster the ways in which our very perception of reality is constituted through photography. Drawing on a Weimar-period essay by Siegfried Kracauer, Foster suggests that Richter’s paintings perform a contemplative, therapeutic function against the horrors of the photogenic universe, working even to “destroy” photography’s homogenizing and amnesiac effects. It is easy to see why Foster was drawn to make this connection. (Kracauer: “In order for history to present itself, the mere surface coherence offered by photography must be destroyed.” Richter: “The picture is the depiction, and painting is the technique for shattering it,” 201.) Although the chapter never quite puts together the dynamics of Richter’s ambivalence with his critique of the photogenic world, the resulting understanding of this artist’s photopaintings is one of the most rewarding we have.

The two remaining chapters of The First Pop Age—those on Richard Hamilton and Ed Ruscha—do not make the signal contributions of the other three. This is not to say that they do not earn their place. Foster’s treatment of Hamilton’s odd, early collage paintings (the first major work in the chapter dates from 1957) is more than welcome: Hamilton’s canonical status in the rise of Pop has rarely been matched with proper scholarly attention. Some of the readings here are wonderfully close to the pictures, putting together effects of line and texture with the iconography of the period’s commodity fetishism. If the resulting interpretations are sometimes staid (the paintings, for example, are seen to demonstrate consumerism’s sexual fantasies of control), they nevertheless build to a rich characterization of Hamilton’s particular theory of modern subjectivity. The postwar male consumer—and Foster points out the period’s marginalization of any proper model for female subjectivity—is deeply marked by the twin terms of desire and distraction: he has no time or patience to perform the “morally alert” functions that Clement Greenberg had seen as the correlate of modernist abstraction.

The Ruscha chapter, which considers paintings from as recently as 2004, comes last. Foster stresses the artist’s geographic location in Southern California; demonstrating his skill for coining indelibly useful phrases, he writes that Ruscha’s great preoccupation has been the “anesthetics of LA cool” (236). He peels the art’s flatness away from Greenbergian associations and correlates it (as other scholars and Ruscha himself have done) with the trope of superficiality in Los Angeles. He sees, too, that Ruscha deploys the visual epistemologies of driving and of sitting in a movie theater. Foster adds that Ruscha’s word paintings materialize language into images, and that his photobooks present the places of Los Angeles as “real estate tout court” (231).7 The oeuvre, in short, is about the particular qualities of the more recent stages of reification—the strange liquefaction of language, images, and land. But Foster sees Ruscha’s work arguing, too, that these processes of modernity nevertheless produce a deadpan subject, a timeless Technicolor blasé. The chapter’s conclusion analyzes some lesser-known paintings made since the 1980s: indistinct, foggy silhouettes quoting Hollywood clichés. These works are tinny but genuinely nostalgic, suggesting—Ruscha even called one series The Course of Empire—the sunset of the American pop-cultural hegemony.

The First Pop Age is a virtuosic summation of thoughts Foster has been working on for years, and cumulatively it offers some of art history’s most piercing characterizations of recent capitalist subjectivity. The individual shaped by contemporary consumerism is both traumatized and bored—at once desirous, overstimulated, and distracted. Tested by a world of image-commodities, this person is beholden, above all, to constantly project his or her own contribution to that flickering screen of technologized phantoms.

It is no surprise that Foster has produced such a powerful account. He has been a major figure in modernist art history for thirty years—having demonstrated just how richly valuable art can be as a means for understanding twentieth-century experience. But I have concerns, too, about Foster’s mode of working, and hopes for how others might further develop his line of scholarship. In particular, I worry that Foster’s point of view in The First Pop Age is too grand, or, more precisely, that it is too rarely anything other than grand—that it lingers too often at a limiting distance from art and its making. I make this point not out of a longing for fetishism, either of objects or of history, but precisely because I think some closer, tighter views would better serve Foster’s own robust aims. Let me be a bit more specific about some of the costs of this position as I see them.

First, the book’s interpretations of its artworks too frequently serve to confirm existing theoretical models of modernity. Foster is brilliant, for example, to connect Richter’s art to Kracauer’s critique of the image-world, but he is not scrupulous or specific enough in showing us how the paintings enact this critique. (The key works are illustrated without comment.) This leaves me fearing that the idea here really belongs more to Kracauer than to Richter and, even then, more to the artist’s words than to his paintings. More important, if Richter’s work indeed serves chiefly to reenact Kracauer’s critique, then we are left wondering whether, in the end, we really need the art¾or the art historian. If these five Pop artists are in fact implicit theorists of contemporary subjectivity—and Foster ably demonstrates that they are—then we ought to learn more directly from their work. How, more robustly, do their theorizations differ from the (largely elliptical) written ones? How might art-historical looking allow us to nuance and de-schematize our received notions of how late-modern identity is formed?

Or take the case of the Screen Tests. Foster builds to an elaborate and sophisticated reading of them as an ambivalent critical mimicry of recent capitalism. But this reading also domesticates the works under Adorno (and others) rather than creating a fresh account. (How odd these works are! Their blend of thrill and ennui is at once so like and so unlike that of popular culture. Might they be proposing liberation through boredom?)

What are the means, then, by which we can get art to refresh our thinking? Closer looking is one tool—attention, for example, to the ways in which works in series vary, even contradicting one another. (Many of the Screen Tests, just as Foster says, reveal the desperation of having to control one’s image. But some of the sitters—Susan Sontag comes to mind—appear almost traditionally coherent and self-possessed. Still others appear to show an endangered but underlying subject, an essential figure laboring to produce those self-images.) Another tool is close historicization. In a brief but fascinating methodological passage, Foster notes explicitly that this is not his project: “I aim not to historicize Pop in relation to its social context so much as to periodize it, through its paradigms of painting and subjectivity, in relation to capitalist modernity” (13, emphasis mine). The First Pop Age, in other words, refuses small-scale contextualization in favor of asking the art to characterize a longer paradigm of human experience. I share Foster’s frustration with narrow scholarly myopia (some of which does little more than pin art to its place and time), but I think that fine-grained historical work, together with close looking, might be the only means for an art historian to yield surprise, to complicate what we think we already know.

Another cost of Foster’s standpoint is the resulting tendency to generalization. It is not that this method stands too far left (in my view, it does not), but rather that its version of leftist critique seems too ready (in the name, I suppose, of total social description) to generalize and dismiss. At times Foster writes almost as if the contemporary subject were capable of no legitimate joy, no real experience of autonomy or even meaning. This tendency obscures the potential ways in which the present might offer dormant but unprecedented opportunities for the future development of subjectivity.

Indeed, the humanities would benefit a great deal right now from a full-scale scholarly reformulation of how advanced capitalist subjectivity really functions. In particular—although I doubt Foster shares my view here—we need a model that triangulates the notion of the subject as a social product with the undeniable persistence of diverse, expressive individuality. This is not to say that we can nail down one complete description of recent subjectivity (far from it), but our current models are too polarized; they need integration and filling out.

There is no reason we should expect Foster to have undertaken this grand task, but The First Pop Age would take us further if it offered more in the way of synthesis or conclusion. To what degree, for example, is some version of a Cartesian, expressive subject still possible? Through most of the book, the hollowing-out of the subject by the image-commodity seems a given, but there are points at which the author suggests doubt—as when he notes suggestively that his artists test the ongoing viability of the “tableau tra­dition” and of “its ends of subjective com­posure” (251). Foster is vague about what subject the tableau had implied in its classic form, and about how exactly that form’s atrophy is linked to the transformation of subjectivity. Furthermore, the terms of Foster’s implicit lament are never spelled out; what exactly did earlier humans have that the Pop-age subject lacks? Expressivity? Autonomy? Coherence? What version of subjectivity, after all, might we hope for now? Finally, what are the areas of overlap and difference between Pop subjectivity and other kinds of recent capitalist subjectivity (such as those famously explored by the likes of Cindy Sherman and Adrian Piper)? In short, how can Pop art be made not to confirm or resist but rather to complicate and flesh out our notions of the contemporary subject?8

Whatever the questions that remain at its conclusion (and indeed, partly because of them), this book is indispensible. We will not soon find a better or more convincing statement of the ways in which popular culture has fashioned a new subject—a homo imago, as Foster writes—a “figment” who must confront, with frustration and sweat, our “new symbolic order” (251–52).


Joshua Shannon is associate professor of art history at the University of Maryland and director of the Potomac Center for the Study of Modernity. His first book was The Disappearance of Objects: New York Art and the Rise of the Postmodern City (Yale, 2009), and he is now working on a book about art and fact around 1968.

  1. The degree to which our own present belongs to this period is a question on which Foster is explicitly uncertain: “Have we moved beyond this first Pop Age,” he asks, “or are we still in its aftermath?” (14).
  2. Hal Foster, “Who’s Afraid of the Neo-Avant-Garde?” in The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century (Cambridge, MA, and London: MIT Press, 1996), 1–33. In his 2011 book The Art-Architecture Complex, Foster makes clear that whatever the politics of the art he treats, he remains committed to “the negativity of critique,” without which culture can offer “no alternatives” to things as they are. Foster, The Art-Architecture Complex (London and New York: Verso, 2011), xiii.
  3. Foster’s use of the words “notion” and “view” to characterize these understandings of subjectivity leaves open the question of whether he means to track the history of the subject per seor only the history of that subject’s theorization. More significant, these words allow a confusion in the relevant scholarship to persist: to what degree do poststructuralist understandings of human subjectivity apply only to human subjects after World War II, say, and to what degree to all human beings, even those who lived long ago?
  4. Hal Foster, “The Return of the Real,” in The Return of the Real, 126–68.
  5. Foster cites Walter Benjamin’s account of the subject’s slow image projection in early photography (151, 155).
  6. Foster calls on Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Elliot (London and New York: Verso, 2006).
  7. Ruscha’s photobooks pass by too fast, in my view. Volumes such as Twentysix Gasoline Stations and Thirtyfour Parking Lots ought to be indispensible territory for Foster: they appropriate the impersonal look of low-level bureaucratic authority while burying traces of both careful selection and whimsy. What better place to test the contradictory qualities of pop-culture subjectivity, its nearly incomprehensible mixture of constraint and possibility?
  8. Perhaps it is not too late to note that I have reservations about the very word “subjectivity,” and especially about the idea of the subject, which I feel sure is a case of what Foster might term a useful fiction. That is, although it is certainly historically valuable to imagine the Pop subject, such a term also writes out the plurality, indeed the individuality, of experience.