Art Trip Seattle: "Pop Departures" and Juan Alonso Studio

By Alec Clayton on November 18, 2014

Seattle Art Museum has always been worth the trip.

We drove up to see "Pop Departures" at SAM. What a wonderful show!

I must admit, however, that my enjoyment of this exhibition was based to some small measure on nostalgia. I was in my sophomore or junior year as an art student when pop burst on the scene back in the early '60s, and it was an eye-popping, mind-bending, psychedelic trip. The very idea that serious artists could paint pictures of soup cans and comic book images and make giant soft sculptures of drum sets or a giant cherry perched in a giant spoon was the most radical thing ever. It bothered me a little that the pop artists were said to be in revolt against abstract expressionism, which I loved, but pop still floated my boat.

Hard on pop's heel came what was called hard edge painting: Ellsworth Kelly and Al Held and - oh my god - Frank Stella. That era in American art history had to have been the most exciting time ever. And yesterday I saw it all — all over again.

"Pop Departures" is a look back at work by the leading pop artists of the 1960s and a jump forward to more contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons, Margarita Cabrera and Mickalene Thomas who continue to follow in the footsteps of those '60s bad boys.

There are whole galleries devoted to Lichtenstein and Warhol, unquestionably the brightest lights of the movement. Other artists represented in the show include Oldenberg, Mel Ramos, Edward Ruscha, Robert Indiana and James Rosenquist (inadequately represented by a single modest-sized painting).

Lichtenstein dominates the first gallery with some of his most iconic images such as "Kiss V," one of his many paintings of romance comic images; "Varoom," a comic-style explosion in and garish red, yellow and orange with lettering; and "Red Painting (Brush Stroke)," one of his famous paintings of an abstract-expressionist brush stroke. (See, they weren't rebelling against AE, they revered it.) Lichtenstein's brushstroke paintings were done to honor the abstract expressionists whom he venerated while at the same time giving them little digs - see, we can paint big, sloppy brushstrokes too, never mind that they were done with mechanical precision.

Lichtenstein's early paintings have lost none of their power over the years and have gained stature as pure design.

In another gallery are two of his paintings of famous modernist paintings, the best of these being "Reflections on Painter and Model," his copy in stripes and Ben-Day dots of a Picasso painting. This is a marvelously composed picture that is, like his brushstrokes, a lampoon of and homage to a hero.

>>> "Marilyn," 1967, Andy Warhol, silkscreen on paper, 36 x 36, Seattle Art Museum bequest of Kathryn L. Skinner, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Paul Macapia.

The many Warhols in this show evidence just how expressive Warhol could be, despite his use of mechanical means and his claim to want to be a machine. How well I remember folks in the '60s saying Warhol was putting us on, that he wasn't a serious artist, that his fame would quickly fade. Fifty years later it is kind of hard to support such claims. I suspect that many of the people who denigrated Warhol's art had never seen it other than in reproduction. When you look at them closely it becomes obvious that his off-register silk screens were just as expressive as many of the action paintings of the previous generation. And what he did with color was simply astounding. Look at the milky green blending to blue and the lemon yellow lips on the face of Richard Nixon in his painting "McGovern." These are indescribable colors that only Warhol could come up with (and yes, it is a portrait of Nixon with the name McGovern written across the bottom).

The one painting by Wayne Thiebaud was a terrific example of his lush paint application. I wish there were more of his paintings. He was always seen as on the periphery of pop, more of a classical painter, but his subject matter fit right in, and man could he ever paint. And since this show "departs" from the first wave of pop to feature later developments, it would have been nice if one of his much later San Francisco cityscapes had been included.

My least favorite among the first generation pop artists in this show is Ramos. Clever titles like "Val Veeta" (a naked pin-up girl on top of a box of Velveeta cheese, note the spelling) do not erase the fact that his pin-up girls are just as sexist as the commercialization of sex he supposedly lampooned. There are a number of his paintings in this show, and they are not impressive.

>>> "Vocho (Yellow)," 2004, Margarita Cabrera, vinyl, batting, thread ad car parts, 60 x 72 x 156, Anne and William J. Hokin Collection. ©Magarita Cabrera, photo courtesy the artist.

Among the best of the most contemporary works is Cabrera's "Vocho (Yellow)," an actual-size, beat-up yellow Volkswagen Beetle made of vinyl, batting, thread and car parts including real bumper and tail lights. The loosely hanging threads in the car lend a house-of-horrors aspect to the car. It reminds me of some of Edward Kienholz's installations. Obviously influenced by Oldenberg, this is a more powerful piece than any of the Oldenberg's in the show (his sculptures look best in situ and these look weak in a gallery setting).

Another of the more outstanding recent works is Barbara Kruger's portrait of Andy Warhol, "untitled (Not cruel enough)." This wall size portrait, 109" x 109", would be indistinguishable from a self-portrait by Andy if it were not for the insulting descriptors printed all around and across the face - unflattering things others have called Warhol.

"Pop Departures" is but one of many shows at SAM. I wandered into the galleries featuring modern and contemporary works from the permanent collection and enjoyed once again seeing paintings by Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock and a couple of great Hans Hoffmans. I was blown away by two large Frank Stella paintings and opposite them a wall-size painting by Al Held. One gallery had a wall full of small paintings by Held, each about a foot square. We always think of his paintings as being slick, flat and precise, but the paint application on these looked like plaster spread with a trowel.

"American Art Masterworks" includes a selection of works by early American masters including John Singer Sargent, Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer and many more - dark and somber works to counteract the glitz of the pop art.

"City Dwellers: Contemporary Art from India" offered interesting views on mostly sculpture and photography by contemporary Indian artists. "Include Me Out," an amazingly dense photo-montage by Vivek Vilasinia and "India Shining V (Gandhi with iPod) by Debnjan Roy, a striking bright red fiberglass sculpture of Gandhi walking with an iPod in hand stand out, as does "Untiled (Self in Progress)" by Alwar Balasubramaniam, a haunting image in white of a seated figure with face and legs buried into a wall and projecting out the other side.

>>> Installation shot of Juan Alonso Studio, courtesy the artist.

After leaving SAM drove to Pioneer Square to visit the Juan Alonso Studio on Washington Street. Juan Alonso-Rodriguez was represented by the Francine Seders Gallery until it closed. He has now joined the ranks of DIY artists who are marketing their own work and opening their studios to the public. His latest work is a series of abstract paintings with horizontal bands or stripes, many in brilliant colors and often with abstract expressionist drips and slashes confined within forms that are essentially minimalist and hard-edge, thus striking an exciting balance between the two strongest movements in abstraction during the second half of the 20th century. These are some of the more vibrant paintings I have seen in a long time.

I thoroughly enjoyed my day at SAM and Alonso-Rodriquez's studio and highly recommend you visit both when you can.

Juan Alonso Studio, 306 S. Washington St. #104, open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturdays.

"Pop Departures," Thursday-Sunday, 2-6 p.m. through Jan. 11, 2015, Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle,