Optical Noise is the latest in a long and distinguished series of exhibitions prepared by first- and second-year graduate students in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture. The works featured in Optical Noise are drawn almost entirely from the collections of the David Winton Bell Gallery. The collection is particularly strong in works on paper, including British and American examples made as part of the print revival of the 1960s and 1970s. A selection of these prints and two related films, which have been lent to this exhibition, are the subject of Optical Noise.
The exhibition features the work of nineteen artists, whose pieces are representative of several art movements from the 1960s and 1970s including Pop Art and Photorealism. The object of this exhibition is neither to challenge nor to replace such well-worn labels, which remain useful for various purposes, but to draw attention to what is shared by these works, specifically what might be called “optical noise.”
Beginning in the late 1950s, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns led the rebellion against Abstract Expressionism, a movement that valued uniqueness, personal expression, and large-scale painting. Instead of creating their own imagery, Rauschenberg and Johns borrowed materials from popular culture, introducing fragmentation, montage, and seriality into fine art-making. The visual dissonance of this new style prompted the influential American art critic Leo Steinberg to coin the phrase “optical noise.”
This approach was adopted by a generation of emerging artists, both in Britain and the United States. As seen in examples from the exhibition, British Pop in particular questioned the distinction between “high” and “low” culture: Eduardo Paolozzi places a cartoon character alongside a Mondrian, Peter Phillips fills the rigid formal device of the modernist grid with erotic advertisements, and Allen Jones transfigures the classical female nude into a marriage of kitsch and sex appeal. Their American Pop counterparts likewise incorporate familiar elements of culture that are already pre-coded before being re-contextualized as art. For example, Mel Ramos’s poster offers a riff on ubiquitous cigarette ads while Andy Warhol’s works reproduce iconic images from Jackie Kennedy to Campbell’s Soup.
In contrast to the cool distance associated with Pop Art, other artists of this generation responded to the heated political agitations of the 1960s with similar visual techniques of fragmentation and seriality. Ronald Stein, for instance, explores the legacy of colonial imperialism while Bruce Conner evokes discomfort by insistently presenting found footage of a nuclear explosion taken from varying perspectives.
Simultaneously reacting to and continuing the visual strategies of Pop, Photorealism represents a different approach to optical noise. Robert Cottingham’s lush aquatint of commercial American signage, Richard Estes’s intricate mise en abyme of reflections in an urban storefront, and Chuck Close’s fragmented lithograph of Keith all defamiliarize mundane subjects. Contrary to their label, these three Photorealists freely edit the “reality” represented in their photographic studies—altering sign text, de-cluttering crowded cityscapes, and fracturing visages in a cacophony of visual play.
American and British art of the 1960s and 1970s, from Pop to its Photorealist contemporaries, often maintained a degree of ambiguity in its remixing of commercial media and sampling of existing images. Regardless of whether these images critique or simply replicate existing cultural conditions, this work inaugurates fresh modes of seeing and art-making. Whether screened or screened out, the prints and films presented in this exhibition resonate with the sensory upheaval of “Optical Noise.”