Nasher exhibition examines pop art

Pop América, 1965-1975, the museum's first fully bilingual show, reveals how the artform stretches the definition of America.

It’s a little scary to talk to an academic about the first time they have an idea,” says Esther Gabara, “because we kind of muddle things. You look at something in an archive; you have a spark here. You start working on other projects. It’s not this sort of straightforward process.”

The answers that the E. Blake Byrne Associate Professor of Romance studies provides on a Wednesday afternoon in an off-campus coffee shop reflect this flowing, almost meandering fashion of scholarship: A quick reply would simply beget another question, so her responses are neither self-contained nor definitive but manage, unfailingly, to answer about three questions in one.

The start of this, her debut curation, dates back to around 2001, when Gabara came across posters from 1960s post-revolution Cuba. She immediately recognized, in the official communist government’s “choice of visual language,” the pop art that she, like so many others, traditionally associated with an American, post-World War II consumer culture. “That’s where the question began. And if you can ask a good question,” Gabara says, “the research will follow.”

What’s followed, nearly two decades later, is Pop América, 1965- 1975, the first fully bilingual exhibit at the Nasher Museum of Art. (All related text, from the artworks’ wall descriptions to the catalogue, comes in both English and Spanish.) It explores the varied meanings and uses of “pop art”; in the catalogue, University of Pittsburgh art historian Jennifer Josten calls it “equal-opportunity language,” capable of operating in both affirmation and subversion.

“I wasn’t so interested in pulling apart or repressing that American-ness up top,” Gabara says, noting that pop art is more of an American artform than a global one. But, she says, this exhibition stretches the understanding of the definition of America beyond a country, or even a continent. It explores how the tentacles of pop art latched on throughout the hemisphere, and the end product emphasizes that pop art doesn’t belong to America so much as it belongs to América.

In just the first gallery, this emphasis on subtle differences in language surfaces. The Hugo Rivera-Scott print Pop América, an allusion to its neighbor on display, Roy Lichtenstein’s Explosion, locates the accent in a place that makes the viewer restart the phrase; in turn, it triggers an accent on the word “pop,” and imprints the notion of the pop in pop art “as a verb, or an activity,” Gabara says. For some artists, pop means to commercialize, while for others it means to disrupt.

Each of the six galleries centers on a gerundial phrase (“Welcome to,” “Mediating,” “Fashioning,” “Consuming,” “Facing,” and “Liberating”). Across these, the works explore the outcomes of global consumer culture and how free markets have culminated in prosperity for some and poverty for many. In “Consuming,” the triptych Agresión del imperialismo from Diego Arango and Nirma Zárate shows the inverse relationship between the intactness of the U.S. dollar in a foreign land and the status of that country’s citizenry. In the “Fashioning” gallery, Lance Wyman’s elongated type for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, which necessitated “the design of an entire world,” says Gabara, finds its way into graphics that highlight the government’s massacring of students that same year.

Much as the exhibition reflects the collaboration and conversations among artists around the hemisphere in this decade, Gabara’s project reflects the work of a number of collaborators and coordinators. The proposal, originally inspired by the Global Brazil Lab at Duke’s Franklin Humanities Institute, had to “lend itself to vertically integrated research”—essentially, a project conducive to researchers at all levels of the academy and across institutions. Gabara has taught two undergraduate seminars that assisted with the relevant research; this spring, she taught a class that took advantage of the exhibition to engage students in a focused object analysis.

From the start, the project has focused on engaging the public. “Immigration and the identity of America has been an important and relevant topic,” Gabara says. “I was talking to someone this morning and saying, ‘Since 1848, it’s been relevant.’ ”

A few minutes later, she heads back to the exhibition, where she’ll give yet another tour of this global phenomenon, and particularly of a museum project that examines “very closely what it means to look at America as one singular continent.”

She’ll be doing it, she says, smiling, in Portuguese.

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