Pop Surrealism

Liezl Zambo

ART 335

Pop Surrealism by Richard Klein is an accompanying exhibition catalogue, published in 1998, for the 1998 exhibit titled Pop Surrealism at The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibit was put together during a time when Surrealism has undoubtedly reentered the art world in a new form, and with this development comes three main themes that are evident: the surreal comics, the grotesque body, and the surrealist icons of popular culture. The curators have chosen works that exemplify any one of these themes. The catalogue contains a Director’s Foreword, 74 images from the exhibit that are spread throughout the book (organized alphabetically by the artist’s last name), three essays by three of the curators for the exhibit: “The Popular Corpse: A Brief History” by Richard Klein, “Not Cloning Around: The Grotesque Body in Pop Surrealism” by Dominique Nahas, and “Pop Icons: A Little Idyll and Selected Quotes” by Ingrid Schaffner, and an index. All three essays tie in with the thesis of the exhibition, but each curator discusses a pop surrealist theme that is related to the specific part of the exhibit that they are curating. Klein examines the narrative aspect; Nahas explores the grotesque body side; while Schaffner goes into detail about the influence of pop icons.

In the first essay, “The Popular Corpse: A Brief History”, Richard Klein essentially calls Pop Surrealism a “popular corpse, [a] Frankenstein-like hybrid of the comic and surreal” (Klein, 15). He asserts that surrealism and comic art are two different concepts that parallel each other and eventually intertwine. For example, the comic Krazy Kat was embraced by the artists of the first manifestation of Surrealism proper (Klein, 17-18). He goes on to discuss the growth of the comic culture and popular cartoon characters in America in the 1930s and they’re initiation into the advertising industry (I.e. the beginnings of characters like Mr. Clean, Pillsbury Doughboy, etc). It was during this time that the Surrealists start to combine the “pop superficiality” of cartoons and the “disruptive” surreal (Klein, 56). In discussing the history of Pop Surrealism in the first essay, Klein introduces readers to this art movement. Having the catalogue begin this way helps readers understand where it all started and how the art style develops. It gives readers some brief context on the artworks in Pop Surrealism.

“Not Cloning Around: The Grotesque Body in Pop Surrealism” by Dominique Nahas introduces the second theme of “the grotesque body” in Pop Surrealism. Nahas points out that the artists in the exhibition steer clear from outright representing the body. In their depictions, the body is deformed as they combine the “weird” and the “[hyper]realistic” (Nahas, 62). He spends majority of the essay talking about the grotesque body (the Surrealism aspect), while injecting some lines about its relationship to mass media and pop culture. Nahas’ essay was a really huge shift from the first essay by Richard Klein. Although the first essay wasn’t written in a casual tone, it comes off as such in comparison to Nahas’ more ‘academic’ and ‘formal’ essay. It is also the most formal among the three essays. Reading this essay would be difficult because he references concepts that most people have never heard of. For instance, he describes mass media as “… the Baudrillardian simulcra in all of its bright plumage” (Nahas, 65). It’s clear that his intended audience are those that are ‘well-read’, evident in this line: “In Bakhtinian terms, then, the grotesque body is flesh as the site of becoming.” (Nahas, 83). And he continues on to the next sentence without explaining what exactly constitutes a “Bakhntinian term”. In order to fully understand him, readers should be ready to spend a some time looking things up.

Switching to Ingrid Schaffner’s essay “Pop Icons: A Little Idyll and Selected Quotes”, she begins with the interesting sentence of “Pop and Surrealism are dating, again.” (Schaffner, 103). She acknowledges the never-ending dichotomy in the Pop Surrealist movement and best describes Pop Surrealism’s ability to be disarming: “Finally, perhaps it is even due to their familiarity, I.e. friendliness, that pop icons have a particularly special knack for appearing so strange simply by dint of being dissociated from the ordinary landscape, the routine context of things.” (Schaffner, 113) . The final half of her essay is solely dedicated to selected quotes by artists that best capture her thoughts on Pop and Surrealism. Other than the selected quotes, what Schaffner does differently, compared to the other two writers, is that she heavily references the actual artworks in the exhibition: “You can see pictures of it in Miles Coolidge’s art… familiar but strange” (Schaffner, 104). By doing this, readers can just flip to the artwork that she mentions (as they’re organized alphabetically by the artist’s last name) to get an idea of what she’s talking about.

In Pop Surrealism by Richard Klein, the writers examine the developing connection between popular culture and Surrealism during the 20th century. Although anyone is welcome to read through this catalogue, those with an interest and knowledge of art and art history are most likely to spend their time reading the essays. In their essays, the curators use art jargon that those not familiar with art might have some difficulty with, and the mention of specific art movements would be lost on the readers with no basic knowledge of art history, as they wouldn’t understand the context of their writing. Despite this, I would still recommend this book to anyone as it is one of the first books to examine the Pop Surrealism movement at its infancy. It is currently almost two decades since Pop Surrealism has been published and a lot has changed in the pop surrealism movement since then. However, I would only readily recommend that people read the first and last essay in the catalogue, then the second essay if they have captured their interest.

Klein, Richard, Dominique Nahas, and Ingrid Schaffner. Pop Surrealism: June 7-August 30, 1998, The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art. Ridgefield, CT: Museum, 1998. Print.


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