at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through June 20

The two most famous movements in American art, Abstract Expressionism and Pop, occurred virtually back-to-back: by the late 50s and early 60s, as Abstract Expressionism started to wane, Pop emerged. “Hand-Painted Pop,” a traveling exhibit now showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, consists largely of works made in the transition period between the two movements, works that have the characteristics of both, as the catalog often argues.

A prime example of Abstract Expressionism is Mark Rothko’s Number 19 (1949), a work in the Art Institute’s permanent collection. Rectangular and uneven shapes of varying sizes and colors are set against a luminous orange ground that itself varies in hue from deep orange to near white. These shapes at times seem like windows onto some vast and immeasurable space; at other times they seem objects, solid and unyielding, with all the suggestiveness but none of the specificity of symbols. Closer inspection of this painting causes the depth effects to alter or even reverse themselves–the painting changes while one looks at it. Step away from it to view the other Abstract Expressionist paintings in the room and return, and it’s changed even more. Number 19 always leads the viewer beyond its surfaces to the varying emotions and unseen spaces that its forms suggest. It’s like a window on the invisible and ever-changing soul.

Now consider one of the few examples in this exhibit of fully developed Pop art, Andy Warhol’s Telephone (1961). This is a clear, hard-edged image of an old-style phone entirely in black and gray; the phone fills the vertical dimension of a rather large canvas. The background is a solid light gray, with a thick black stripe at the right. While at first glance the Rothko seems subtle and mysterious, almost insisting that the viewer keep looking, at first glance Warhol’s Telephone seems to invite only that glance. The picture has only two tones, black and gray; an “illusion” of an intermediate shade of gray on some parts of the phone is obtained by interspersing black lines with narrow gray spaces. The fact that the light gray of the background and the black of the phone are different shades of the same color, that the stripe and the phone are both black, and that the canvas is the same height as the phone contributes to the sense that this is less a picture of something than a substitute object. One is encouraged to take in its starkly outlined essential features quickly and move on–to relate to the picture, in other words, much as one might relate to a mass-manufactured product.

These two paintings, and the schools they represent, are thus arguably antithetical. With its windows on the infinite, the Rothko seeks to encourage imaginative, ever-changing spiritual experiences in the viewer, offering an alternative to mass culture and daily life. The Warhol not only embraces mass culture, it replicates it in its relationship to the viewer. The Rothko takes the viewer on a mysterious and unpredictable journey; the Warhol seems to offer the viewer the security of ready perception of a familiar object, almost as if by looking at it one possesses the object. Two very different kinds of statements are being made; two very different kinds of viewers are called for. It should come as no surprise that Warhol found himself shunned by many painters whose work he had admired but who saw his paintings as a betrayal of their artistic ideals. When Warhol and painter Robert Indiana (also in this show) crashed a party given by an Ab-Ex painter, Rothko is said to have taken his hostess aside and complained, “How could you let them in?”

This superb show is worth seeing for three reasons. First and most important, it contains a great deal of beautiful and great art. Second, by exploring the transitional period between Abstract Expressionism and Pop, it helps answer the question “How did we get from here to there?” Third, and perhaps most interesting, the exhibit together with the catalog seriously undermine the notion that these two movements were polar opposites. The viewer who sees the painterly roots of early Pop will be better able to perceive the aesthetic, even painterly aspects of certain “High” Pop works as well.

Larry Rivers was a key transitional figure. Though his loose, improvisational brushwork was doubtless influenced by Abstract Expressionism, his paintings are representational and even display an interest in subject matter far from the “timeless and tragic” that Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb had declared the only fit material for art. An early work from 1953 reinterprets a famous painting that even then had become kitsch, Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 Washington Crossing the Delaware. Rivers’s The Studio (1956), which is modeled on a painting by Courbet of the same name, shows his family and friends on a large horizontal canvas. On either side of a nude dancer at center are his two sons; at the far left, poet and art critic (and early appreciator of Abstract Expressionism) Frank O’Hara; at far right, the artist’s mother-in-law. Also spread about the picture are fragments of objects–a stove, a house–and daubs of paint. The portraits often display the figure in two or three different poses at once.

Everything about this painting is modest, gentle, provisional. No one view of a person is true, so we’re given several. Many blank areas separate objects and people, giving each thing a certain physical autonomy. There is no overall compositional design that interprets or gives meaning to its parts. For most of the history of Western art, each part of a picture–whether a Renaissance angel or a Rothko rectangle–has gained meaning only from its place in the whole. The Studio is more like a list, a form beloved by many later Pop painters, or an oriental scroll painting than like its Courbet model.

It is often true that when an artistic movement or style is pushed to an extreme a counterreaction sets in. Once Renaissance painters had “figured out” how to depict actual space, Mannerists set about obliterating perspective. Thus it’s not surprising that the transcendent, universalizing, totalizing, inward-looking ideals of Abstract Expressionism should be answered by more modest pictures like The Studio, which subordinates painterly style to the depiction of recognizable things.

Two other young artists, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, made an even more radical break with the artist-centered, self-revelatory work of their predecessors. Even their statements about art are self-abnegating. Instead of a call for “tragic and timeless” subjects, Rauschenberg expressed the wish–which he admitted was futile–to be “just another kind of material in the picture, working in collaboration with all the other materials.” Johns said, “I didn’t want my work to be an exposure of my feelings.” Both men redefined the relationship between artist and subject matter, seeking to partially remove their materials from the control of the artist’s ego and allow them a certain independence. Even so, their art contains many personal references.

Consider Rauschenberg’s Interview, one of a series of “combine” paintings he began making in the mid-50s; these combined paint with cloth, photographs, and a variety of actual objects. Interview consists of a large rectangular wooden structure divided by a hinged door. To the left of the door is fabric with a rainbowlike strip of paint colors right from the tube, a kitschy tropical landscape signed by another painter, a piece of driftwood hanging in front of the landscape, and other found images. The right side includes a wide variety of images, many smeared with paint: a baseball, a fork, an unfinished wooden panel at the top with some apparently random smears of white paint. To the right is a vertical wooden panel nailed to a piece of fabric covered with an almost Rothko-like painting of luminous orange and red shapes.

At first glance Interview–and most of the other Rauschenbergs in the show–looks like a nearly random, childlike mess. (“Pick up your room,” you can almost hear some parent saying.) Yet neither the arrangement nor the objects chosen are random. The wood hanging in front of the tropical landscape could have “drifted ashore” on the beach just below it–the large actual object and smaller-scale image are a kind of artist’s joke on illusion in painting and sculpture. The stripes of paint below refer both to this painting and to all the images in the piece, reminding the viewer that every image is made up of–and, more important, can be seen in the mind’s eye as made up of–pure color. The Rothko-like panel, with its rows of nail heads fastening the cloth to the wood, takes its place as one of many images, none superior to any other, each made up of pure paint.

Rauschenberg’s composition establishes its parts as elements whose autonomy is to be respected. In a manner not unrelated to Rivers’s The Studio, the work seeks to convey the sense of elements existing side by side rather than fusing with each other into something new. Multiple relations between them abound; no element takes precedence. Rauschenberg has explicitly stated his interest in equality of parts: “I don’t want painting to be simply an act of employing one color to do something to another color, like using red to intensify green, because that would imply some subordination of red.”

The nonhierarchical organization of Rauschenberg’s works and the frequent presence of a palettelike grouping of colors amid other images–note Small Rebus (1956)–encourage the viewer to see each element as first of all a material thing with its own existence. Rauschenberg’s voice is far less controlling than that of earlier painters, and the viewer is encouraged to take a more active role in seeing and interpreting.

Johns began by painting objects–flags, targets, numbers–that had not generally been subjects for high art, and he painted them in a manner that seemed to deprive them of symbolic potential. While the ordinariness of his subjects surely helped pave the way for later Pop painters and various interpretations of them have been offered (the catalog contains an interesting “gay” reading of one of the Targets), what seems to me most significant is the way these subjects are treated: each is given an autonomous, lively existence that keeps the viewer focused on the work’s physicality. Like Rauschenberg and unlike Rothko, Johns rejects the imagined beyond for the graspable here and now.

In his Flag Above White (1954), a fairly realistic image of a U.S. flag is placed above a white rectangle of the same hue and texture as the flag’s white stripes. As in most of his paintings, Johns uses encaustic, a wax-based medium that gives a rough, thick, somewhat sculptural appearance. The image isn’t as aggressively on the surface as with oil; yet the slight relief effects enhance the image’s physicality. The viewer is not looking at the picture of a flag–we are not led outside the work to imagine the object–nor is it an actual flag; among other things, the white area below reminds us that this is a created work of art. What Johns has succeeded in doing–as evidenced by the multiple and often contradictory interpretations offered for his works over the years–is to create art that may momentarily suggest both poles of illusionism at once: that this is an image of an actual flag and that it is a flag, a substitute object. But one quickly realizes his images are neither. By offering us a picture of a thing that neither depicts the thing nor becomes the thing, Johns gives the viewer an experience of paradoxical denial. Deprived of any of the accustomed systems for interpreting artwork, the viewer is forced instead into an unpredictable, messy, sensuous, and ultimately glorious encounter with every tiny wrinkle and smudge and brush stroke of the work. In what is perhaps the catalog’s finest essay, John Yau suggests that Johns’s art expresses a particular self-conception: the artist defined by what he does and by what he experiences rather than by a preexistent self that determines what he makes.

In Fool’s House (1962), Johns has hung a large broom from the top of his canvas and attached to the bottom a towel, a stretcher, and a cup. He then labels each of these objects, writing their names next to them. After chuckling at the wry, self-deprecating humor–any fool knows a broom is a broom–one realizes that this act of naming also robs the objects of any symbolic potential. If the artist had some hidden purpose behind the selection of objects, he wouldn’t likely identify them so obviously: and so this work attains a kind of impenetrable self-sufficiency. The objects are no more than what they are, and our vision is freed.

Map (1962) presents a large map of North America. State and province names are applied with anonymous stenciled letters. The colors are mostly shades of gray, but dabs of blue, yellow, and red enliven the composition, frequently demarking borders but often also covering over borders. I looked at this picture for a long time, and found my experience of it gradually changing, until I felt a strange revelation. The differences between the colors seemed to dissolve, the names of the states and the familiar geography seemed to lose all their associations, and I was transported to a realm beyond language, beyond image, beyond logic. Here as elsewhere, Johns’s thick encaustic functions as a kind of barrier to illusionistic entry into the image, offering instead a sensuous experience of paint and surface unlike any other. As is the case with Rauschenberg, the patterns his smears of paint make have their roots in Abstract Expressionism, but they also seem somehow random. Unlike forms organized to serve a single expressive vision, Johns’s haphazard patterns tend to return the viewer to each daub, for none is controlled by any other, all are free.

One of the best early critics of Pop, Robert Rosenblum, defined it as “a coincidence of style and subject, that . . . represents mass-produced images and objects by using a style which is also based upon the visual vocabulary of mass production.” This definition, apparently well suited to major Pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and Warhol, doesn’t really apply to Johns and Rauschenberg, whose work doesn’t fit into any established school. But most of the artists in this show do share one characteristic: they redefine the relationship between viewer and picture. Rather than gazing through the image, as if one were looking through a window, one stops at the physical reality of the image, whether it be Johns’s encaustic smears or a Warhol telephone.

Many artists more closely identified with Pop than Rauschenberg and Johns make works that often efface the distinction between image and object, and in this sense the artworks are akin to mass-produced things. Jim Dine in Green Suit (1959) displays a hand-painted and torn suit as if it were a painting, and in Black Tools in a Landscape (1962) sets ordinary tools like pliers and a saw in a thick black surface that looks as if it’s been smeared with a paintbrush.

Closer still to Pop are a large group of Claes Oldenburg works, all on muslin soaked in plaster and placed over a wire frame, then painted in bright enamels to depict a variety of familiar things–stockings, chocolates, a Pepsi-Cola logo. Hung on a wall, they’re closer to painting than sculpture. The shape simulates that of the object depicted, but usually not precisely: in Pepsi-Cola Sign (1961) the muslin sometimes extends a bit beyond the sign’s circle or cuts off a bit of the sign. The painted image is gentle, fuzzy, and soft-edged–not at all like an actual Pepsi sign–yet the works, with their consistent looks and interesting if irregular shapes, seem to present themselves as objects that one might collect.

But it is perhaps Lichtenstein whose work most closely approximates the instantaneous, somewhat possessive, but otherwise unemotional way we perceive mass-manufactured objects. An early untitled painting (c. 1959) is made of brightly colored, wavy Abstract Expressionist brush strokes, but the image turns the Ab-Ex aesthetic on its head: instead of the patterns seeming mysterious, allusive, changeable, they feel rigid, solid, materialist–stuck in their own colors. Normally I’d use such expressions as negative criticism, but Lichtenstein manages to make instantly perceivable objectlike physicality his subject.

This becomes clearer when one looks at his later, High Pop images of ordinary objects–Swiss Cheese (1962), Cherry Pie (1962), or Turkey (1961). Simple, almost cartoonlike forms painted with bright colors and almost mechanical lines are often accompanied, in some areas, by half-tone dots: the painter imitating mechanical reproduction, a reversal of the usual order. But because pictures that at first look like anonymous advertising illustrations are painted with Lichtenstein’s genuine eye for color, shape, and line, they don’t enter one’s consciousness as transparently and easily as the images they appear to ape do; instead they bump or jar one’s senses, producing a kind of small shock, making one aware of the way they register. That awareness becomes, in the perceptual moment, Lichtenstein’s true subject.

Two lesser-known artists in this exhibit don’t fit the general aesthetic principles shared by most works in the show, but the differences help illuminate those principles. Joe Goode’s Milk Bottle Painting (Two-Part Blue) (1961-1962) consists of a double canvas with each half painted a solid shade of blue with a blue milk bottle set on the floor in front of it. The two elements are so disparate as to send one’s imagination off in a variety of directions: one wonders if the canvas stands for the door of a home; one wonders if the work is part of some live performance. This allusive effect removes the viewer from the work’s physical qualities.

In Jean Follett’s Lady With the Open Door Stomach (1956), a fairly abstract arrangement of painted wood, wire, gravel, and metal suggests the image of a woman. What appear to be two washers with grommets are the eyes. Follett’s materials encourage one to form a mental image of an actual “lady”; Lichtenstein’s turkey doesn’t lead the viewer to think of a real turkey, even to the extent that a similar image from an advertisement would; rather it locks the viewer into the act of perceiving its lines, colors, and dots.

The installation of this exhibit, with works by the same artist frequently grouped together, is well suited to serious viewing. But another aspect of the installation is problematic at best, noxious at worst: the kinds of cultural documentation with which the works are surrounded. “Time lines” and newspaper headlines provide us with isolated facts–no attempt has been made to relate them to the art. What good does it do to know that the “Minimum wage is raised to $1 an hour” in 1950 without knowing what a 1950 dollar is worth today? We learn when the first gay and lesbian organizations were formed in the United States, but nowhere in the show are we told that many of these artists are gay. Videotapes of Eisenhower press conferences and the Kennedy inauguration are interesting enough, but what do they have to do with the art? Why not display 50s magazine ads, which have a more direct relation to this work?

In the museum’s orientation space, tapes of 50s television run continuously–an animated “Ike for President” cartoon, for example. In it, marchers, drummers, and balloons all parade from left to right to the same idiotic, utterly mechanical rhythm. Most of the other 50s TV displayed is similarly sterile. No attempt is made, in the exhibit or the catalog, to suggest what relationship the show’s curators (neither from Chicago–this traveling exhibit comes to us from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles) see between the art and 50s TV, but I fear the worst.

One early critic of Pop art wrote in 1963 that Lichtenstein had “made a sow’s ear out of a sow’s ear.” What he and others argued was that Pop was as bad as, or worse than, the commercial art it appeared to imitate. I believe the works in this show demonstrate the contrary: that artists like Lichtenstein vivified, deepened, made more comprehensible, and ultimately transcended the relation between consumer and object in our culture. The uncommented-on conflation of the art in this show with 50s TV seems to indicate that the works are no different from, or at least are on the same level as, some of the most brain-numbing products of that age. The fact that all of these artists came of age before the advent of television seems to have eluded the curators. I suppose to the postmodern curator, television always controls everything.

Even if one feels that TV is relevant to the art in this show, it cannot be denied that this is only one possible contextualization. By making it virtually the only context (few visitors will read the catalog), the curators impose a particular view on the show suggesting that we are all creatures of the mass culture. But the glories of the best works here come from the way they go beyond the inanities of that culture.

The particular mass-culture context the curators impose is truly poisonous right at the entrance to the exhibit. We stand facing two key early works by Johns and Rauschenberg, Flag Above White and Coca Cola Plan (1958), while behind us and above us a video monitor displays a video transfer of Emile de Antonio’s 1964 compilation film of the 1954 Army- McCarthy hearings, Point of Order. While there may be something interesting to say about the fact that some of these works were made in the McCarthy era, this particular installation certainly doesn’t say it. We’re not only prevented from looking at two beautiful works of art in silence, we’re forced to see them to the accompaniment of the voices of politicians, generals, and lawyers. In this context these works are truly “postmodern”–denied the independent, autonomous existence that the artists worked so hard to give them.

I certainly don’t believe there are any rules about the background information, if any, art shows should offer, but by making the choice of 50s TV documents the curators have excluded much other information. We learn nothing of the artists’ biographies, for example: I suppose the idea that an individual’s life has any importance seems terribly recherche to the TV-formed postmodern sensibility: we all know that we’re only constructions of our culture. Truly poisonous moments can occur to a visitor viewing these two works and listening to Point of Order, when the voice accompanying the art, and thus dominating one’s senses, becomes that of Roy Cohn. At these moments the museum visitor is forced to view the work of Johns and Rauschenberg while listening to a notoriously manipulative and dishonest attorney (he was disbarred late in life), a homosexual who denied he was gay even while dying of AIDS. Meanwhile we’re nowhere told that Rauschenberg and Johns were companions and lovers for six of the most important years in their artistic formation, years in which both these works of art were made, in fact. I can’t imagine that the curators were being intentionally homophobic, but it’s hard to conceive a more dishonest, life-denying, love-denying way of presenting the works of two lovers than this.

Not even the voice of Roy Cohn can extinguish the love from the best of these works–a love for the surfaces, colors, and forms of our human-created world. James Rosenquist, working as a commercial sign painter on huge billboards in Times Square, noticed how different the signs looked up close. He soon developed an art based on the almost fetishistic sensuality of some commercial images, whose purpose is to instill a desire for objects, but Rosenquist’s is an art with a difference: specific products are frequently not identifiable, and more important, his images have a sensuousness that resonates almost musically. By combining fragments of objects he creates a rhythmic form; the eye passes from one to another instead of resting on any one fragment, the lush colors and shapes of each enriching all the others. A Lot to Like (1962) combines parts of a suit, a football player, an oil can, an umbrella, and a hand, rendered in soft but rich blues, greens, and reds. A razor blade near the center reiterates the sharp edges of each fragment, whose abrupt juxtapositions–one often obscures part of another–gives the whole composition a near-ecstatic tension.

Rosenquist’s sensuality returns us to a consideration of Pop’s other great painter of surfaces, Warhol. Consider his pre-Pop Girl Sucking Forefinger (c. 1956-1958). Superimposed over and to the left of the traced outline of a young girl are wide swaths of streaked, very sensual colors–red, yellow, blue. The conjunction is a key to Warhol’s sensibility: underlying every image, every form, even premade ones, he sees the potential for a limitless, almost infantile sensuality. To look at anything is to immerse oneself in an undifferentiated, ever-regenerating forest of sensuous forms. In the slightly later proto-Pop Peach Halves (1960), the colors of a Del Monte peach can bleed from the label so that rich strings of red trail down onto the luminous peaches–brighter and richer in color than those on any peach can I’ve seen. Which returns us to the apparently objectlike Telephone. The blacks and grays now possess a rich, deep, velvet sensuousness; the black strip at the right–rather than seeming a compositional element or, as some critics have suggested, a reference to the Abstract Expressionist “stripe” painter Barnett Newman–becomes akin, despite its regular geometry, to the colors in Girl Sucking Forefinger, an area of paint with an innate, undifferentiated beauty.

Despite these artists’ differences, almost all can be said to base their art on contact with the physicality of their materials; despite the differences in subject and tone and meaning from the Abstract Expressionists, they also learned from the earlier generation to treat paint, and other materials, with freedom from convention and respect for its nature. Both movements’ best works renew the viewer’s eyesight: the Abstract Expressionist addresses the inner eye, asking the viewer to define herself by her imagination; the Pop artist encourages in the viewer a direct sensual contact with our mass-produced culture. But the projects of the best painters in this show and the best of the Abstract Expressionists are identical: to provide the viewer with an ecstatic, rhythmic, sensual visual experience while asking, and attempting to answer, crucial questions about the nature of individual identity and the relationship between the individual and the world.