Artist interview: Martha Rosler

Was ‘pop art’ a term used by yourself or colleagues or was there a different terminology that referred to a new figurative art movement in the 1960s and early 1970s?

Yes, the term ‘pop art’ was used by myself and people in my milieu (who got there before me!) by the mid-1960s. But it was not necessarily applied by us, to ourselves. The prevailing model of pop in the USA in the early 1960s had not quite settled on Warhol. He was considered a somewhat mystifying hybrid figure and performer, an arrival from fashion illustration, different from those who like James Rosenquist and Lichtenstein had high-art cachet – as did the earlier though rowdier Rauschenberg (and, although a bit of a stretch, Willem de Kooning). But initially the painters most attended to were closer to Tom Wesselmann (his Great American Nude paintings), Oldenburg or Robert Indiana: decorative, smooth, satirical, not too gritty. I drew inspiration from ‘cooler’ figures, in the Duchampian mode, from outlier influences like the San Franciscan Jess [Collins] and the European surrealist Max Ernst, from some Bauhaus photography, and the ever-fascinating Eadweard Muybridge.

Did you ever consider yourself (now or in the past) a pop artist?

I felt that most things I was doing that weren’t abstract expressionist painting or straight photography were directly influenced by pop: I’d had an internal debate about pop and decided that its advent meant that style was a matter of choice, not unconscious expression. But no, I wouldn’t have labelled myself a ‘pop artist’.

Did your work engage with current events in the 1960s and early 1970s?

Yes, my work certainly did engage with current events! I adopted pop strategies to bring together mass media images of politicians and political currents, and to offer an immanent critique of advertising featuring women. I also began making anti-war images whose pop influence is apparent – though only, to my mind, at some remove.

How did you choose the subject matter for your work included in The World Goes Pop?

I wanted to use images of women from mass magazines virtually all of which were engaged in shameless stereotyping. I felt that the emergent pop painters also repeated those tropes but always denied any depth of social critique beyond an ironic wink. I wanted my work to be seen as what we much later came to refer to as a deconstruction of the image. This group of works (which total more than thirty) I retroactively called Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain.

Where did you get your imagery from (what, if any, sources did you use)?

Mass-market magazines like Life and Look but also the Sunday New York Times magazine, a large-format glossy with high-end advertisers on their expensive pages.

Were you aware of pop art in other parts of the world?

I knew about British pop by mid-decade: Richard Hamilton was a well-respected figure, and Allen Jones a despised one; but French nouveau réalisme was known to have preceded these trends before Lawrence Alloway disseminated the term pop art. I may have known by then of some Latin American pop. There were a number of women, mostly painters but some sculptors, in New York who were clearly making work that was pop, including Marisol, who was always referred to as Latin American. I don’t think I had more than a superficial knowledge of the contents or intentions of pop abroad, however.

Was commercial art an influence on your work or the way in which it was made?

I felt allergic to commercial art, and most of my work was in one way or another pitched against it. Much of the post-AbEx work of the late 1950s and the 1960s was made in the face of the impending tide of commercialism: for example, Allan Kaprow and the birth of ’happenings’. (Fluxus had a different sort of European-derived concern, I felt.)

Was there a feeling at the time that you were doing something important and new, making a change…?

I don’t think my mind works that way.

Was there an audience for the work at the time – and if so what was their reaction to it?

My work has always struggled for a wider audience than the artists around me – or perhaps more widely for feminists, who have generally ‘gotten’ my work immediately, and young radicals, who understood a number of works as well.

Looking back at these works, what you do think about them now?

I hardly know how to talk about my own work with any distance. Woman with Vacuum, or Vacuuming Pop Art is one of the earliest of this ‘series’; it announces the theme I would pursue for quite a few years. It is a retrograde image of a happy housewife with a snaky appliance, which implicitly compares the bright colours of pop art – embodied by images of women and romance – with the professional, almost claustrophobic decor. The rest are much later and take on the theme ‘the (female) body in pieces’, dismembered for delectation in high-end, soft-core pornographic magazines, encoded into wallpaper (painting is flat!) on the one hand and kitchen appliance adverts on the other. I should think that the reading ‘woman = good mother = food’ is apparent in the kitchen set; you might say its theme is ‘consumption’. I am surprised at the consumability of the latter set today, as I see them as flatly, obviously, inarguably symbolic.

September 2015