At the 1964 World's Fair, a work of art was installed on the outside of the New York State Pavilion. It was an electric sign that boomed a single golden word: "EAT." At the fair it aroused too much hunger that led nowhere. People believed they could find food, but there was only the electric light of the sign. The artist, Robert Indiana, was asked to turn it off.
Indiana's artwork commented on the blind alleys of all kinds of signs that advertise nourishment. Ads invent hunger; they don't satisfy it. But flipping the terms around, can art ever feed people? The American Pop artists of the 1960s flaunted that question, ultimately wondering what kind of art can feed an audience. They taught us to notice the identities of products, and even more so, to notice everything as a product, including ourselves. They were pioneers in making us wonder exhaustively about what we're being sold and whether we want to buy it. All the art in Seattle Art Museum's exhibition Pop Departures, including Indiana's sign, is asking whether you "buy" it, and your response will be determined by whether it feeds you. Some of our deepest belief systems about art and morality are embedded here, beneath these Instagram-ready surfaces.
Pop Departures, created by SAM curator Catharina Manchanda from a mix of loaned and collections pieces, proposes three generations of artists' attitudes toward consumer culture. The first group uses the profanity of mass culture to invade high art (Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein). The second, in the '80s, splinters into the craven (Jeff Koons), the critical (Barbara Kruger), and the revolutionary (Lynn Hershman Leeson, Nam June Paik). Today's generation mimics our "culture of participation"—the way we can be scrutinizing one minute and indiscriminate the next.
The generations are separated chronologically. Early Pop is represented in multiple paintings, sculptures, and prints. The first two galleries are full of Lichtenstein's drollery and Warhol's flirtations with total vacancy. It's vital to remember that these are from another era, that they are historical works. (Many of the Lichtensteins are borrowed from local billionaire Charles Simonyi, whose quaintly outdated hobby is traveling to outer space.)
When you get to Claes Oldenburg's hammy humor, it hits like a perfect alcoholic buzz. His meaty bicep on the wall and shiny sour-creamed baked potato in its glass vitrine brought me joy. When a child once asked me, Why do you drink alcohol?, my reason—For recreation, because it feels good—did not seem like an adult answer, but I think it was a human answer, one reflecting that our needs and wants—our bread and candy, our food and "EAT" signs—are not always entirely separable.
In the 1980s section, one sculpture by Koons—a topless blonde embracing the Pink Panther while wearing the most horrible faux-happy expression—gives off a charge, seeming to come from a place of disgust. The other Koons sculpture and the Richard Prince reprints feel limp. In the next room, you can't look away from the quieter torture of fashion magazines in Robert Heinecken's collages made of the backs of magazines superimposed onto their fronts. Perfect mouths are choked with pretty inedibles, or vomit them. Product shapes eat each other. Paik's robot version of Attila the Hun—with a constant video feed playing where his insatiable belly would be—feels oddly noncommittal.
One work of art dominates the 1980s section: Barbara Kruger's nine-foot blowup portrait of Andy Warhol's face. It's from a black-and-white photograph in which he looks wary. Kruger printed it on vinyl, like a common banner, then added printed words around him: "Not cruel enough," "Not real enough," "Not man enough," "Not beautiful enough," "Not pathetic enough." In the presence of these common, contradictory criticisms of Warhol's work and persona, she seems to ask, What do you want from him? She made the piece in 1997, presciently: The words sound like a chorus of online trolls.
By the time Pop Departures hits the 2000s, with seven artists representing international perspectives in video, sculpture, photography, and installation, everything has exploded. The art is all over the place.
Margarita Cabrera's hand-sewn soft sculptures of consumer goods are anti-Pop, lovable, and hairy like animal bodies. Pop is a flat-footed context for them.
Ryan Trecartin's frantic, demented dramas for YouTube are the pure products of America gone crazy, to borrow from William Carlos Williams. They are exhausting, and their antithesis is two energizing YouTube video compilations by Amie Siegel. One is a collection of videos by men singing "My Way," and the other is a collection of young women singing the High School Musical song "Gotta Go My Own Way." It's touching to guess at the little mysteries of each individual's circumstances—who and what are these videos for?—within the framework of their sameness.
Josephine Meckseper's mirrored rearrangement of an American mall display is ice-cold literary theory incarnate. Meckseper is an outsider looking in; she grew up in small-town Germany and didn't encounter an American mall until she attended graduate school in California. An artist with more skin in the game is Mickalene Thomas, a direct descendent of 1960s American Pop, invading high art with her choice of materials (rhinestones, enamel) and references (the minimalist grid overlaid by a black woman with a glorious sunburst of hair taken from an anonymous internet photo).
Elad Lassry's still-life and portrait photographs are each the size of a magazine page and are framed in the color of the picture's dominant hue. They're products for display, but it's impossible to say where they'd belong. Something in every photograph is just off. Planted in an anodyne condo, these would function like patches of poisonous flora that look almost exactly like the rest of the life-giving forest.
Art, products, and our bodies can betray us. There's a nice, big 1962 painting by Wayne Thiebaud of a bakery case, the rows of cakes and pies rendered in thickly frosted paint the texture of tantalizing food. They are closed away in their glass case. The case is enfolded in the rectangle of the canvas, the canvas encased in its frame. It's a Russian doll of appetite. The only essential food in the scene—two loaves of plain bread—sits alone on top of the counter. There's so much more demand for dessert.