K-POW! Pop art at DIA packs a punch

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer
Roy Lichtenstein's 1963 "Crying Girl," in "From Camelot to Kent State" at the DIA through Aug. 25.

Pop art, born in reaction to abstract expressionism, does a nice job tracing the arc of American optimism from the election of Pres. John F. Kennedy to the souring that followed, when Vietnam, Watergate and inflation pretty much killed the national buzz. 

"Sweet Dreams, Baby!" by Roy Lichtenstein in "From Camelot to Kent State: Pop Art, 1960-1975" at the DIA through Aug. 25.

"From Camelot to Kent State: Pop Art, 1960-1975" at the Detroit Institute of Arts offers a refresher course in the fizzy movement that elevated consumer culture to high art, with 73 colorful works by the likes of Andy Warhol, Corita Kent, Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein. 

The exhibition, on the museum's first floor and mostly drawn from the museum's own collection, will be up through Aug. 25.

"So much of this show," said organizer Clare I. Rogan, DIA curator of prints and drawings, "is about that sense of energy in the 1960s, and monumentalizing the ordinary." 

That energy is written all over Roy Lichtenstein's work, whether the 1965 cartoon panel, "Sweet Dreams, Baby!", with its cheerful celebration of American violence, or the kitschy, soap-operatic "Crying Girl." 

The 1965 "Enriched Bread" by Corita Kent at the Detroit Institute of Arts pop-art exhibition.

At the sunny end of this collection is Corita Kent's "Enriched Bread," where the one-time nun isolates the "Wonder" in the Wonder Bread label, turning what looks like a play on commercial packaging a la Andy Warhol and Campbell's soup into a metaphor for the Holy Eucharist. 

Indeed, a spirit of play runs through much, if not all, of this show. Fun examples include David Hockney's affectionate silk screen of the London dealer who promoted him, "Portrait of Kasmin," as well as Claes Oldenburg's "Profile Airflow," a striking polyurethane mold of the 1934 Chrysler Airflow in a fetching shade of turquoise. 

"Oldenburg loved the Airflow, and had a model of it as a kid," said Rogan. The work radiates "a sense of nostalgia for American technology, 20 years out of date." 

Striking a darker tone, despite his use of vibrant colors, is James Rosenquist's 24-foot-long "F-111 (South, West, North, East)" from the early 1970s, which links the bomber and everyday consumerism, spaghetti included, and suggesting more connection than meets the eye. 

Then there's Warhol, who's represented here by his "Electric Chair" series, with its photo of "Old Sparky" from New York's Sing Sing Prison, rendered in different colors -- as well as by two somber, black-and-gray takes on first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

Andy Warhol's 1966 "Jackie II," in the DIA show, "From Camelot to Kent State: Pop Art, 1960-1975."

With "Jacqueline III," Warhol groups together four images of the widow, two of them iconic shots everyone of a certain age will remember from the days following JFK's assassination. 

Part of what gives the works their power "is that they're not precise screen prints," Rogan said, noting that the blown-up newspaper images "look slightly dissolved and shimmering," bestowing a certain timelessness.

Finally, straddling the line between bleak and amusing is Robert Rauschenberg's "Booster" from 1967, in which the artist -- seeking to create a "self-portrait of inner man," in his words -- had himself X-rayed wearing only hob-nailed boots. 

Like everything in this bracing show, it's worth a peek. 

"Booster" by Robert Rauschenberg features an X-ray of the artist's body.

 'From Camelot to Kent State: Pop Art, 1960-1975'

Through Aug. 25

Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward, Detroit

9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Thurs; 9 a.m. - 10 p.m. Fri; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat. & Sun.

Free to residents of Macomb, Oakland & Wayne counties

All others: $14 - adults, $9 - seniors, $8 - college students with ID, $7 - kids 6-17

(313) 833-7900 

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy