Charting pop art’s appeal

    You know how a flock of starlings suddenly changes direction, and they all turn left or right in unison? Well, the art world does that too. It’s as if someone hiding around the corner blows a whistle conveying a secret command, and off they all jump. It’s happened with the synchronised arrival in London of three big pop-art shows. Why they have jointly chosen to arrive now is a mystery beyond this review’s cognitive scope. What I am certain of is that all three are flawed. But, interestingly, flawed in different ways.

    The one that ought to have the most straightforward agenda, Pop Art Portraits, at the National Portrait Gallery, turns out to be the most convoluted. You would have thought there was nowhere convoluted to head in an examination of pop portraits. The task ought to be simple: borrow the best ones, put them in a line. But to assume that is to underestimate the hunger for knottiness of the modern exhibition curator. The NPG show spends most of its length not deciding on the location of this Marilyn or that Elvis, but agonising over the most basic conundrum of the terrain: what is a portrait? The gallery was founded in 1856, so you would have thought they might know the answer by now. But either they don’t, and are finally being honest about it, or, more likely, they do, but have taken the view that life is too short to deal only in the obvious, and chosen instead to entertain themselves with a selection of pop sudokus themed loosely on issues of portraiture.

    How else to explain the presence in the opening room of a giant white Rauschenberg interior featuring a window, a cardboard box, a ruler and a TV screen? It’s dedicated to Jasper Johns, an American proto-popist with an even bigger rep than Rauschenberg. And, true, the window and the ruler are favoured Johnsian motifs. But what’s missing here is a face, a nose, an eye, some hair or any other recognisable bits of humanity. I can accept that Rauschenberg is trying to evoke Johns’s spirit, but do the results really constitute a portrait?

    Having decided to challenge from the off the usual definition of portraiture, the show is free in one bound to head wherever it fancies in the vast and sexy territory of pop art. Which it does with enthusiasm. The list of images in the show ahead that do not constitute portraits is long and varied. The section dealing with pop art’s fascination with girlies and pin-ups, for instance, deals mostly with, er, girlies and pin-ups, as it allows generous quantities of anonymous boob and bum to be worshipped by furtive English fiddlers. Yes, Allen Jones and Peter Blake, that means you. Even when a Brigit or a Sophia is included in this aesthetic onanism, the point surely remains that any foreign bird will do, as long as she’s starkers.

    In the show’s sole moment of religious interest, a bitty and ugly Paolozzi figure, welded out of slabs of car engine, turns out to represent St Sebastian, the holy martyr whom the Romans pinned with arrows, and who expires so sexily in so many Renaissance altarpieces. If this is a portrait, then so is every Madonna, every Jesus, every Buddha or Zeus in art.

    If all this sounds like mounting criticism, it isn’t meant to. I may have been unconvinced by the thinking behind this display, but I definitely enjoyed the windy journey it took me on. As it scuds gaily between topics, it vacuums up some cracking pop-art imagery, and even manages, on occasion, to tackle the subject under consideration. Notably in the final room, a sad shrine to Marilyn Monroe in which the extraordinary hold the uber-blonde had on the pop-art imagination is proved in different ways by Warhol, Oldenburg, Hamilton and Boty.

    Where the NPG event is definitely successful is in underlining the complexity of pop art. By lurching this way and that as it seeks to avoid its own subject matter, it ends up proving that pop wasa more restless and disgruntled movement than we usually assume.

    Over at the Hayward, The Painting of Modern Life is probably searching for similar depths. The problem here is not excess complexity, but its near opposite: an absence of gear changes. Once we are on the Hayward’s chosen path, we just seem to stay there.

    Strictly speaking, this is not a pop-art show but an investigation of the impact of photography on modern painting. Many of today’s most fashionable artists – Luc Tuymans, Marlene Dumas, Peter Doig, Elizabeth Peyton – work not from life, but from photographs, as did the great generation that preceded them: Warhol, Hamilton, Richter.

    The show’s title comes originally from Baudelaire, who famously called for a painter of modern life to emerge in French 19th-century art, one who would ignore the overmuscled heroes and impossible gods dominating the Paris salon at the time and seek instead to capture the modern world as it really was – the city, its pace, its citizens and their interests. In Baudelaire’s time, this commendable ambition led to Manet and the impressionists. A hundred years later, it led to Warhol and pop art.

    The Hayward survey begins impressively, with a gritty selection of monochrome paintings based on news photographs by Gerhard Richter, Vija Celmins and Richard Artschwager, culminating in a stupendous Warhol car crash, in which the same scene is repeated 11 times in harsh nocturnal orange. I’m not at all sure which modern response to human tragedy Warhol is trying to put his finger on in this bleak image, but something about the constant repetition of the twisted metal reminded me of being caned at school.

    It’s a marvellous opening to a show. And it works as well as it does because photography’s best gift to painting at this time is a compelling air of monochrome sadness. Remember, we are in the era of the black-and-white photograph. So, Artschwager’s 1966 office scene with lonely desks, Celmins’s battered wartime car, the fine Richter of Jacqueline Kennedy opening her umbrella after her husband’s assassination, all convey a sense of global hopelessness I’d trace back specifically to the absence of colour on the front pages of the day.

    The next room continues the good work as it turns to specific political events. This is where they’ve hung Richard Hamilton’s irredeemably ugly portrait of the Irish hunger-striker Bobby Sands, the one that seems to have been painted with Sands’s excrement.

    Here, too, is Warhol’s Big Electric Chair of 1967, another thoroughly successful reminder of how powerful an artist Andy could be when he stopped going wow and started going no.

    All this is good. But then, after just two rooms, it all goes wrong, and stays wrong till the end of the show. The first problem is the sudden drop in stature of the artists involved. Instead of Warhol and Hamilton, we get Johanna Kandl, Franz Gertsch and Liu Xiaodong. All are journeymen at best, all work from colour photography, and, in all, the influence of the photograph seems to drown out the contribution of the painter. An era of powerful photographic transformations has given way to a shrill age of photographic mimicry.

    The only artists who stand out in this disappointing final slab of the show are the ones who deliberately ration the influence of colour photography. Wilhelm Sasnal returns to the black-and-white sadnesses of Richter and Celmins. Robert Bechtle examines the same cars the pop artists found sexy and notices only their strangeness and their isolation.

    Which brings us to our third stopover, Pop Art Is…, the huge Gagosian Gallery survey of pop art from Warhol to Hirst, via everybody you can think of, plus the kitchen sink. Have you been to a car-boot sale? That’s what’s wrong with the Gagosian show.