Pop América

Through Jul. 21

The Nasher Museum of Art, Durham 

Pop América, an exhibit currently on view at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art, seeks to expand the canon of Pop art, which has largely been defined by Andy Warhol’s ironized embrace of the bright, graphic aesthetic of mid-twentieth-century advertising, beyond North America. By showcasing a broad array of works produced across Latin America between 1965 and 1975, the exhibit hints at the different ways that Latin-American artists used the visual vocabulary of advertising to critique the neocolonial imposition of North American consumer culture and values on the Southern Hemisphere. 

The most compelling parts of Pop América illustrate the vital role that graphic arts played in defining the anti-imperialist movements of the era, most notably print-making in response to the Cuban revolution of 1959 and the Mexican student movement of 1968. There are several posters and paintings by Raúl Martinez, the Cuban artist whose candy-colored portraits of the country’s political and cinematic icons helped forge the aesthetic identity of the revolution. Throughout the show, it becomes evident that Cuba’s rich print-making tradition laid the groundwork for some of the most iconic anti-imperialist imagery of the period, including Elena Serrano’s color-blocked Che Guevara OSPAAAL magazine cover and Frémez’s Vietnam solidarity poster. 

Another section brings together protest ephemera produced around Mexico’s 1968 Olympics. In preparation, Mexican police tightened repression on labor union and student activism, leading to the Massacre of Tlatelolco, in which, ten days before the games were to start, police opened fire on students gathered to demand police demilitarization. American graphic designer Lance Wyman’s famous Op art Olympics logo, meant to convey Mexico’s groovy modernity, is placed alongside screen-printed, student-produced posters that appropriate Wyman’s design to critique police brutality during the Mexico City games. The variety of protest and commercial objects in the show bearing Wyman’s design is evidence of both a project of forced modernization, imposed on Mexico from abroad, and the radical refusal of that project. These artifacts shed light on how Latin-American cultural producers understood North American commercial icons—as symbols of colonial control. Rather than rejecting these symbols wholesale, however, they saw them as ripe for subversive short-circuiting. 

As in Colombian painter Antonio Caro’s rendering of the word “Colombia” in the Coca-Cola font, commercial emblems serve as symbols of an aspirational modernity often built on the bones of Latin American peasants and militants who fought American corporations for labor and land rights. For the contemporary viewer, it is difficult to see Caro’s paintings and not think of the well-documented murders, starting in the 1990s, of nine union organizers at Colombian Coca-Cola bottling plants. While it subtly mocks modernity, Caro’s hand-painted counterfeit of a machine-printed icon also points to how American foreign policy in the early twentieth century forced Latin America into a position of economic and technological dependence. If Pop in North America was a willing embrace of the merger between art and the market in the midst of post-war prosperity, Pop in Latin America would have a much more chilling meaning, one inextricably enmeshed with the continent’s bloody, century-long battle against North American imperialism. 

Pop América contains pieces that are a rare treat to see in North American museums, including works by avant-garde sculptor and illustrator Felipe Ehrenberg and a slide projection by experimental theater actor and conceptualist Juan José Gurrola. One of the most stunning works is “My Mother and I,” by Venezuelan-French-American sculptor Marisol. One of the few female Pop artists in the North American scene, her work has been rescued by the concerted efforts of feminist art historians. Marisol’s blocky sculptures of bourgeois family life are poised between a critique of patriarchy and astounding plastic experimentation with the human figure. “My Mother and I” features a mother and her small daughter covered by a cut-out parasol that casts arabesque patterns throughout the gallery. But the obvious prettiness of the piece is undercut by the mother’s encasement in the immobilizing boredom of her role as caretaker stuck on a park bench.

Though Pop América presents a wide-ranging vision of the myriad meanings of Pop art in a hemispheric context, one wonders if Pop art is a necessary frame for understanding this body of work. Do we need to look at these pieces side by side with Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenberg in order to understand their vast subversive power? One consequence of framing the movement as being as North American as apple pie is that it strips both contexts of their specificity. 

If Latin-American artists sometimes found themselves playing with American popular culture, it was not because of an aesthetic exchange carried on between the two continents. It was the result of a neocolonial consumer culture foisted on the global South through both economic coercion and literal violence. What is amazing about the radical Latin-American art of early postmodernity is its vast repertoire of gestures of refusal, even as those refusals are couched in vaguely ironic humor. Though it is important to open up the canon of Latin-American visual art to a broader audience in an accessible manner, I hope it can one day stand on its own radical merits.