Free Display

Media Networks

See how artists in Tate’s collection have responded to the impact of mass media

© Lee Mawdsley

 

13 rooms in Media Networks

James Rosenquist and Allora & Calzadilla

James Rosenquist and Allora & Calzadilla

International artists have responded in different ways to the impact of mass media and communications

Go to room

James Rosenquist, Skull Snap, 1989. © James Rosenquist/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2018

Yin Xiuzhen

Yin Xiuzhen

Using everyday materials, Yin Xiuzhen makes sculptural objects to explore themes of power and individual identity

Go to room

Yin Xiuzhen Weapon 2003–7 

©️ 2019 Yin Xiuzhen Photographer: Song Dong. 

Highlights

Whaam!
Roy Lichtenstein Whaam! 1963
Babel
Cildo Meireles Babel 2001
Bust of a Woman
Pablo Picasso Bust of a Woman 1944
Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project
Cildo Meireles Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project 1970

1/4
Highlights in Media Networks

Whaam!

Roy Lichtenstein
Whaam!
1963

Whaam! 1963 is a large, two-canvas painting by the American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein that takes its composition from a comic book strip. The left-hand canvas features an American fighter plane firing a missile into the right-hand canvas and hitting an approaching enemy plane; above the American plane, the words of the pilot appear in a yellow bubble: ‘I PRESSED THE FIRE CONTROL… AND AHEAD OF ME ROCKETS BLAZED THROUGH THE SKY…’. The outline of the resulting explosion emanates in yellow, red and white; the work’s onomatopoeic title, ‘WHAAM!’, jags diagonally upwards to the left from the fireball in yellow, as if in visual response to the words of the pilot. The painting is rendered in the formal tradition of machine-printed comic strips – thick black lines enclosing areas of primary colour and lettering, with uniform areas of Ben-Day dots, purple for the shading on the main fighter plane and blue for the background of the sky.

The work’s composition is taken from a panel drawn by Irv Novick which appeared in issue number 89 of All-American Men of War, published by DC Comics in February 1962. From the original panel, Lichtenstein produced preliminary drawings, one of which is in Tate’s collection (Drawing for ‘Whaam!’ 1963, Tate T01131). In this drawing, he set out his first visualisation of the painting, including marking the divide of the original single panel into two parts, confining the main plane to one and the explosion to the other. Revealing Lichtenstein’s process of making minor changes during a work’s creation, the colour annotations on the drawing are different to the final colours used in the painting, notably the use of yellow instead of white for the letters of ‘WHAAM!’. To make the final painting, Lichtenstein projected the preparatory study onto the two pre-primed canvases and drew around the projection in pencil before applying the Ben-Day dots. This involved using a homemade aluminium mesh and pushing oil paint through the holes with a small scrubbing brush. Onto this he painted the thick outlines of shapes and areas of solid colour in Magna acrylic resin paint. This use of different materials has made cleaning the painting a particular challenge for conservators (see ‘Conserving Whaam!’, Tate website, 1 March 2018, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/lichtenstein-whaam-t00897/conserving-whaam, accessed 7 November 2018). According to the artist, the diptych took one month to produce from start to finish (Lichtenstein, letter to Richard Morphet, 10 July 1967, Tate Catalogue file).

While Lichtenstein’s work that draws on popular imagery from advertising and cartoons involves a degree of appropriation, the artist himself acknowledged that the act is really one of transformation: ‘I am nominally copying, but I am really restating the copied thing in other terms. In doing that, the original acquires a totally different texture.’ (Quoted in Lawrence Alloway, Roy Lichtenstein, New York 1983, p.106.) By taking the comic strip and using it as he does, he conflates the powerful but so-called ‘low’ mass-produced commercial image with the traditionally venerated medium of large-scale easel painting. Lichtenstein also explained the significance of the military subject matter he chose for many of his paintings during 1962–3: ‘At that time I was interested in anything I could use as a subject that was emotionally strong – usually love, war, or something that was highly-charged and emotional subject matter. Also, I wanted the subject matter to be opposite to the removed and deliberate painting techniques.’ (Lichtenstein in John Coplans, ‘Interview with Roy Lichtenstein’, Artforum, May 1967, p.36.) He saw the style of cartoons, with their easily digestible lines and primary colours, as an appropriate vehicle for painting a dramatic scene in a detached, calculated manner.

The choice of cartoon to represent military action arguably also renders the scene ridiculous and juvenile. Although the intention of the original publication of the comic may have been to show glorious, action-filled images of ‘All-American Men of War’, through Lichtenstein’s quasi-absurdist treatment, the scene is turned into what art critic Alastair Sooke has described as ‘a tongue-in-cheek male daydream of aggression, conquest and ejaculatory release’ (Alastair Sooke, Roy Lichtenstein: How Modern Art Was Saved by Donald Duck, London 2013, p.2). Considering Whaam! was created in 1963, just as the Vietnam War was gathering steam, and taking into account Lichtenstein’s own service in the US Army in 1943–6, this deconstruction of military heroism could be read as a statement on the folly of war. Lichtenstein explored the imagery of explosion in two other works in Tate’s collection, Wall Explosion II 1965 (Tate T03083) and Explosion 1965–6 (Tate P01796).

The content, conceptual basis and production of Whaam! makes the viewing of the work full of contradictory dualities which are never fully resolved – highly charged subject matter rendered in a dispassionate, detached style; commercial art in a fine art context; the mass-produced image painstakingly rendered by hand in a unique painting; the familiarity of the imagery and its alien application in scale and medium. Many of these dualities chime with ideas explored in the wider pop art movement by the likes of Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg.

Further reading
Diane Waldman, Roy Lichtenstein, London 1971, pp.16–17, reproduced p.72.
James Rondeau and Sheena Wagstaff (eds.), Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, London 2012, p.39, reproduced pp.160–1.
Nathan Dunne, Roy Lichtenstein, London 2013, pp.17–18, reproduced pp.40–1.

Arthur Goodwin
November 2018

Summary, 2019

Babel

Cildo Meireles
Babel
2001

Babel 2001 is a large-scale sculptural installation that takes the form of a circular tower made from hundreds of second-hand analogue radios that the artist has stacked in layers. The radios are tuned to a multitude of different stations and are adjusted to the minimum volume at which they are audible. Nevertheless, they compete with each other and create a cacophony of low, continuous sound, resulting in inaccessible information, voices or music.

In describing this work, Meireles refers to a ‘tower of incomprehension’ (quoted in Tate Modern 2008, p.168). The installation manifests, quite literally, a Tower of Babel, relating it to the biblical story of a tower tall enough to reach the heavens, which, offending God, caused him to make the builders speak in different tongues. Their inability to communicate with one another caused them to become divided and scatter across the earth and, moreover, became the source of all of mankind’s conflicts. The room in which the tower is installed is bathed in an indigo blue light that, together with the sound, gives the whole structure an eerie effect and adds to the sense of phenomenological and perceptual confusion. The radios are all of different dates, the lower layers nearest the floor being composed of older radios, larger in scale and closer in kind to pieces of furniture, while the upper layers are assembled from more recent, mass-produced and smaller radios. This arrangement emphasises the sense of perspectival foreshortening and thus the impression of the tower’s height, which, like its biblical counterpart, might continue into the heavens.

The artist has explained that the work took over ten years to complete from initial conception to its realisation:

Babel began in 1990 on Canal Street, in New York. There were eleven years of notes before I finally realised the work in 2001, in Helsinki, at the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art. Upon observing the quantity and diversity of radios and all the different types of sound objects that were sold around Canal Street, I thought of making a work with radios. Radios are interesting because they are physically similar and at the same time each radio is unique.
(Quoted in Tate Modern 2008, p.168.)

The title and themes of Babel also relate to one of Meireles’s most important and ongoing influences, the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986). Borges’s fiction also provides one of the key references for another major work by Meireles in Tate’s collection, Eureka/Blindhotland 1970–5 (Tate T12605), which draws on Borges’s short story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, first published in 1940. A further connection between the two works is their use of sound as a sculptural and perceptual element. Here, however, Meireles has borrowed a symbol that is central to Borges’s writing. In his story ‘The Library of Babel’, originally published in 1941, Borges described a universe in the form of a vast or conceptually complete library that has its centre everywhere and its limits nowhere. This corresponds to Meireles’s interest in expanded notions of space and of infinity, in an excess of perceivable information and the processes of cognition.

The curator and writer Moacir dos Anjos has also related Babel to another of Borges’s stories, ‘The Aleph’ (1945), which describes a point where all places in the universe can be seen from every angle. Dos Anjos makes links between Meireles’s work and Borges’s story, suggesting that both question the ‘rigid codes’ that govern our perception of the world and ‘that are unable to grasp the fluidity with which the body traverses and experiences it’ (Moacir dos Anjos, ‘Where All Places Are’, in Tate Modern 2008, p.170). Dos Anjos suggests that the presentation of informational overload in Babel can be seen as a metaphor ‘for the intricate relations between distinct nations and communities’ which insists on ‘recognising the existence of a territory with uncertain boundaries, one that accommodates multiple oppositions and produces the multiple contamination of cultural expressions previously separated by geographical and historical injunctions’ (dos Anjos 2008, p.173).

Babel was included in the artist’s retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern, London, in 2008.

Further reading
Guy Brett (ed.), Cildo Meireles, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2008, pp.14–5, 57, 168, 170–3, 183, reproduced pp.6, 169.

Tanya Barson
May 2011

Summary, 2016

Bust of a Woman

Pablo Picasso
Bust of a Woman
1944

Bust of a Woman is a painting in oil on canvas by Pablo Picasso. It depicts a woman whose body is rendered in a semi-abstract style. The face is painted half in white and half in grey, suggesting light and shadow, while the red horizontal and purple vertical lines on the lower and upper halves of the canvas provide a chaotic background. The woman’s dress is green, and this colour is picked up in the bonnet of her hat, as is the yellow of her hair.

Picasso painted Bust of a Woman in Paris on 5 May 1944, during the final months of the Nazi Occupation. Although his wartime work is often seen as austerely monochromatic, the higher colouring of this work may suggest the prospect of liberation. His model was the photographer Dora Maar and the painting shows the typical physiognomy that he attributed to her and that had appeared in supremely anguished form seven years earlier in Weeping Woman 1937 (Tate T05010). In Bust of a Woman Maar is shown wearing a hat and green clothing, and sits on a black metal chair. The angular and planar structure of her face are achieved with a linear simplicity, allowing for the contrasting orientation of nose and mouth. This configuration occurs repeatedly in the sequence of 1944 portraits of which this is one. Another, painted on the same day and also titled Bust of a Woman (private collection), shows a taller hat, but taken together the two works reveal how Picasso rethought the structure of the shoulders and upper arms from canvas to canvas. At times, as here, the upper arms have a brick-like shape, whereas in others they are almost detached. Eventually, in Seated Woman 1944 (Musée Picasso, Paris), painted in July of the same year, the depiction of Maar is both more elaborate and more realistic.

Picasso painted Bust of a Woman in his studio at Rue des Grands-Augustins where he had painted (and Maar had photographed) Guernica in 1937 (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid). With the crumbling of the Axis powers, repression in occupied France intensified. In late February 1944 the poets Robert Desnos, an associate through surrealist circles, and Max Jacob, whose friendship with Picasso stretched back to the early years of the century, were arrested by the Nazis and deported as Jews. Jacob died of pneumonia at Drancy and Desnos died of typhus in Germany. On 19 March 1944, however, Picasso’s friends were able to stage a performance of his play Le Désir attrapé par la queue (Desire Caught by the Tail). As well as Maar, the performers were drawn from the young intelligentsia of occupied Paris: Albert Camus directed, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were among the performers, and the play took place in the studio of the writer Michel Leiris and his art dealer wife Louise Leiris. Bust of a Woman and its associated series captures this complex moment of fear and hope that would lead Picasso to join the Communist Party in October 1944.

Further reading
Pierre Daix, Picasso: Life and Art, New York 1993.
Elizabeth Cowling, Picasso: Style and Meaning, London 2002.
Christoph Grunenberg and Linda Morris, Picasso: Peace and Freedom, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool, Liverpool 2010.

Matthew Gale
January 2011

Summary, 2016

Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project

Cildo Meireles
Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project
1970

Meireles altered a series of Coca-Cola bottles, by printing slogans such as ‘Yankees go home’ or instructions for making Molotov cocktails on them. He put them back into circulation in what he described as an act of subversive ‘mobile graffiti’, enacted under Brazil’s military dictatorship. He saw the system of recycling empty bottles as a way of enabling a political message to circulate surreptitiously. He has compared the Coca-Cola bottles to ‘messages in bottles, flung into the sea by victims of shipwrecks’.

Display caption, 2016