When Latin America took on Pop Art

Juan José Gurrola, Familia Kool Aid (Kool Aid Family) from the series Dom-Art, c. 1966–1967.

Courtesy of the Fundación Gurrola A.C. and House of Gaga. Photo by Nattan Guzmán.
Juan José Gurrola, Familia Kool Aid (Kool Aid Family) from the series Dom-Art, c. 1966–1967.
New exhibitions are addressing the misconception that Pop Art is a distinctly Anglo-American phenomenon.

New exhibitions are addressing the misconception that Pop Art is a distinctly Anglo-American phenomenon.

© Hugo Rivera-Scott. Photo by Jorge Brantmayer.

Hugo Rivera-Scott, Pop América, 1968.

As perspectives of Pop expand, even canonical artists can be seen afresh. Rivera-Scott’s Pop América, for instance, reminds of the political underpinnings of Lichtenstein’s explosion.

When, in 1968, the Chilean artist Hugo Rivera-Scott was tasked with designing the cover of a poetry book titled Pop América, he deployed language in his own experimental way. Using collage, Rivera-Scott laid out the text in bold type, setting the word “Pop” against an explosion of red and “américa” in neat, lowercase cursive—all within a dynamic landscape of Ben-Day dots. The poet, Eduardo Parra, never published the book, but Rivera-Scott’s collage conveyed a resonant statement on its own: “We always thought about it like ‘explode America, burst America’ in the sense [of] Pop as an onomatopoeia,” he later said of the design.

Six decades later, Pop América retains its power to explode notions of America—specifically, when seen in the context of art history, the misconception that Pop Art is a distinctly Anglo-American phenomenon. Rivera-Scott was responding to an iconic print of an explosion by one of Pop’s most recognized names, Roy Lichtenstein, but he was also one among many Latin American artists who were using the strategies of Pop for their own purposes. Among his contemporaries were the Chicano painter Melesio Casas, who merged pop culture and folk art in his biting responses to the trivialization of indigenous cultures, and the Venezuelan American visionary María Sol Escobar who made a splash in the ‘60s art scene as the sculptor Marisol—until her name gradually fell into obscurity.

© 2018 Estate of Marisol. Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, New York.

Marisol Escobar (known as Marisol), Mi mamá y yo (My Mother and I), 1968.

Only in recent years have these artists received much (or any) institutional and international recognition. In 2015, the traveling exhibition International Pop and Tate Modern’s The World Goes Pop presented global surveys of Pop beyond canonized white male artists (Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, et al.). This summer, the New Museum restaged Argentinian artist Marta Minujín’s La Menesunda, a high-sensory, pop-surrealist installation that engages with and exploits the frenzy of mass media. The first US museum retrospective of Colombian painter Beatriz González, who also mined mass media in her practice, is currently traveling. And Pop América, an expanded view of Pop Art in the Americas—and which takes its name from Rivera-Scott’s collage—is wrapping up its own year-long journey.

Now at the Block Museum at Northwestern University, Pop América examines the decade from 1965 to 1975, a period of political turmoil and social dissent in Latin America. As student protests erupted in Mexico City; military regimes controlled Brazil, Chile, and Argentina; and American imperialism stirred debates over the meaning and costs of freedom, many artists turned to the language of Pop to express themselves. Like Rivera-Scott, they used bright colors, flattened imagery, and other cues from mass-circulated, commodified pictures to spread radical messages under repressive conditions. This was a period exploding with visuals—a world of signs and icons of both abundance and catastrophe—and artists quickly mined the political potential of this new media, with all its anarchic sensibilities.

“A lot of these artists were looking at the commercial world as a source of inspiration,” the Block Museum’s academic curator Corinne Granof told Art & Object. “They were looking at popular culture, mass culture, advertising, and really bringing it into their art, using it as a source, or critiquing the consumer world.” Yet, she added, “there is definitely a political edge to many of the works. We’re sparked to challenge the perceived political neutrality of Pop.”

When artists grasped the power of media and its swift impact on society in terms of communication and consumerism, the realization signaled a general turn away from Abstract Expressionism and its indirectness. Cuban artist Raúl Martínez, who trained in abstract painting and worked as a commercial artist, began painting graphic, eye-catching portraits in the ‘60s that celebrated a distinct Cuban identity. These depicted national figures like the Cuban revolutionary José Martí, often in serially repeated, high-contrast imagery or framed in grids (not unlike, more famously, Warhol’s works). But others paid tribute to unsung heroes, like rural workers and athletes. El Vaquero (1969) is a photograph of a cowboy that Martínez painted over in vibrant colors, transforming the anonymous youth into a celebratory and vivacious icon.

Antonio Dias, The Illustration of Art/Uncovering the Cover-Up, 1973
Courtesy of the artist and Galeria Nara Roesler, New York, New York, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. © Antonio Dias.

Antonio Dias, The Illustration of Art/Uncovering the Cover-Up, 1973

Robert Indiana, Study for Viva HemisFair poster, 1967.
Courtesy of the McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas.


Robert Indiana, Study for Viva HemisFair poster, 1967.

Rupert García, Unfinished Man, 1968.
Courtesy of the artist and Rena Bransten Gallery, San Fransisco, California. © Rupert García. Photo by John Janca.

Rupert García, Unfinished Man, 1968.

Raúl Martínez, El vaquero (Cowboy), c. 1969.
Image courtesy of the Raúl Martínez Estate, Ciego de Ávila, Cuba, and Corina Matamoros.

Raúl Martínez, El vaquero (Cowboy), c. 1969.

Felipe Ehrenberg, Caja no. 25495 (Box no. 25495), 1968.
Courtesy of Reina María de Lourdes Hernández Fuentes.

Felipe Ehrenberg, Caja no. 25495 (Box no. 25495), 1968.

Eduardo Costa, Fashion Fiction I, 1966–1970.
Courtesy of the artist (ear) and private collection (magazine). Sculpture © Eduardo Costa

Eduardo Costa, Fashion Fiction I, 1966–1970.

Antonio Caro, Colombia Coca-Cola, 1976.
Image courtesy of the artist and Casas Riegner, Bogota, Colombia. © Antonio Caro.

Antonio Caro, Colombia Coca-Cola, 1976.

Antonio Berni, Mediodía (Noontime), 1976.
© José Antonio Berni.

Antonio Berni, Mediodía (Noontime), 1976.

The Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles spread his messages in more subversive ways, exploiting the market to critique US cultural and economic influence in his home country. In 1970, he took advantage of the virality of Coke—an aggressive and dominating force in Latin America—to circulate altered bottles in his project Interções em Circuitos Ideolõgicos: Projeto Coca-Cola (Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project). Each carried labels that could be read only when the bottles, which were recycled and recirculated at factories, were filled with soda. The message, “Yankees Go Home,” for instance, was a spirited rebuke to US intervention on Brazilian politics.

Courtesy of the artist (ear) and private collection (magazine). Sculpture © Eduardo Costa. Photo by Albano Garcia. Photograph by Richard Avedon, © The Richard Avedon Foundation

Eduardo Costa, Fashion Fiction I, 1966–1970.

While Warhol was drawn to the iconography of Coke as an emblem of the modern consumerist era, Meireles saw greater consequences of this mass-produced, fetishized object. So did the artist Antonio Caro, who painted a series of works that spelled out “Colombia”—his home country—in the same curlicue script as the soda giant’s brand. The white-and-red paintings conflate the two identities and weaponize viewers’ assumed recognition of Coke’s label to convey a grim reality: the coca-colonization of the region.

Works like those by Caro and Meireles emphasize how Pop was, far from an American export, very much an international style. Artists in Latin America seized Pop strategies to engage issues that stretched across the hemisphere, and even to regions as far as Southeast Asia, where the violence of American interventionist policies in Vietnam resonated with artists like Diego Arango and Nirma Zarate. Aesthetic similarities across borders also emerge: Mexican artist Felipe Ehrenberg’s wooden boxes that contain painted images recall Robert Rauschenberg’s assemblages; Martínez’s use of repetition bring to mind Jasper Johns’ paintings.

Notably, as perspectives of Pop expand, even canonical artists can be seen afresh. Rivera-Scott’s Pop América, for instance, reminds of the political underpinnings of Lichtenstein’s explosion: It can be easy to overlook the fact that Lichtenstein, far beyond considering colors and graphic impact, was informed by the 1962 Cuban missile crisis when he made that work. An exhibition like Pop América, hopefully, is just one of many necessary opportunities to help broaden public conceptions of Pop Art.

“It is sort of decolonizing the canon,” Granof said of the multi-institutional endeavor. “This art world had pretty much been overlooked for many decades, and exhibitions like this help get us away from a master narrative about modern art.”

About the Author

Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a Chicago-based art writer. Her work has appeared in publications such as ARTnews, Artsy, Chicago Magazine, Atlas Obscura, and Hyperallergic, where she was previously a staff writer.

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