Before Warhol: Depression-Era “Pop” Artists

I recently took a graduate seminar on the material culture, art, and design of 1930s New York. It was astonishing to focus in on this time and see the relationships between people and ideas that an art/design survey course would have ignored, and the juxtapositions it would have glided past. The professor introduced a fresh view of this seemingly well-known period, explaining the paradoxes of rich/poor, fear/hope, trust/suspicion, starvation/excess through art, film, and objects. From an art history standpoint, one idea expanded well beyond this era to look at photographer Margaret Bourke-White and filmmaker Bugsby Berkeley in a new way: as Andy Warhols of the Depression.

Margaret Bourke-White, Fort Peck, Montana, Relief Project Diversion Tunnel Apparatus, 1936. (c) Time Inc.
Margaret Bourke-White, Fort Peck, Montana, Relief Project Diversion Tunnel Apparatus, 1936. (c) Time Inc.

Warhol may have astonished the art world with his soup cans (which I love—I use the 2012 Target versions as living room decor), but repetition of everyday objects was not new. In addition to Bourke-White’s documentary photography depicting Americans facing poverty and unemployment, she also photographed the mechanization of the everyday, framing diversion tunnels and dancing shoes in artistic ways that nearly abstracted them. Her 1933 Delman Shoes shows a close-up view of rows of matching dance shoes, for one. A 1936 image of Montana’s Fort Peck Dam diversion tunnels (left) shows the monolithic structures all in a row, a repeating scene of industry and technology, line and form.

Bugsby Berkeley, still from Gold Diggers, 1933
Bugsby Berkeley, still from Gold Diggers, 1933

Berkeley showered his films with duplication and the everyday: dancers became objects, filling the stage and repeating one another’s movements or acting in unison. In Gold Diggers, they carried supersized gold coins—even larger versions of which created a backdrop. Not unlike Warhol’s fascination with commerce and art as business, Berkeley too put money at the forefront.

Warhol flattened his objects, exploding many into bright, unnatural colors and displaying them in a perfect grid, but still one can imagine his factory artists silkscreening Bourke-White’s prints or Berkeley’s film stills (if with a bit more of that psychedelic color).

Andy Warhol, Campbell's Soup Cans, 1962.
Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962.

The combination of repetition + everyday objects + art make many, previously including myself, think of the 1960s rather than the 1930s. But these notions go well beyond Bourke-White and Berkeley, who serve merely as examples to remind us that even the most seemingly original ideas have a precedent; one just needs to find it. As Andy himself has stated, “Isn’t life a series of images that changes as they repeat themselves?”

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