Pop Masters is an exhibition of 54 large, brash, and colourful paintings by the big names of Pop from New York’s Mugrabi Collection. Work by Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat is extended with current painters who continue to engage with Pop imagery. Despite the decades that have passed since Pop art’s emergence, their concerns feel increasingly urgent and relevant.
The exhibition’s presentation and pacing echo the conventions established by the movement, reflecting and quoting the commerce of advertising and merchandise. Shiny and patina-ed selections dismantle the sense that art is separate from our media-driven lives. Quotes from Basquiat, Haring and Warhol are presented like billboards throughout the gallery; Warhol’s ‘ART IS ANYTHING YOU CAN GET AWAY WITH.’ is witty and, in its intention and sentiment, denies the pretension that art may have ever had to a higher truth.
The exhibition’s first room opens to Richard Prince’s larger than life screengrabs (2014), one of which records an engagement with David Mugrabi on Instagram. This offers an entry point for digital natives and riffs on the ’15 minutes of fame’ concept misattributed to Warhol. They also lead both the eye and the psyche through the relationships that define Pop art and Modernity in this exhibition. The entry works by Prince and two of Tom Wesselmann’s Great American Nudes (1961 and 1962) are flanked by the first of twenty Warhols that carry this show forward. Included here are the Polaroid photographs Warhol used as the basis for his adjacent paintings and his iconic Sixteen Jackies (1964). The latter marked the incursion of mass media on the assassination of President Kennedy (and its ability to transmit images around the world). Four White on White Mona Lisas (Reversal Series) (1980) reiterates the sense that the most art historically important images are reproducible.
In the rooms that follow there are four large Keith Haring works, and eight by Jean-Michel Basquiat—paintings, a sculpture and drawings—yet the liveliness of this exhibition emerges just as strongly in the interleaving of more recent work by artists like Katherine Bernhardt, Kwesi Botchway, George Condo, Damien Hirst, KAWS, Jeff Koons, Julian Schnabel, and Mickalene Thomas. In these, the stridency of contemporary life and issues, from #blacklivesmatter (Botchway) to pleasure (Joel Mesler’s Pool Party (2022)), convey meaning with rapidity, using a visual vivacity and an often shallow picture plane. Hirst’s When they were down they were down (2007), a mirrored stainless cabinet wherein hundreds of pills are glitteringly displayed, is at once a critique and celebration of the pharmaceutical industry, while Thomas’ Untitled #10 (2014) quotes the Warhol flower from the next room and elevates the issues of race, diversity, women, and identity with its colourful and decorative surface. The exhibition concludes with Warhol: a late Self-Portrait (Camouflage) (1986) and a new NFT from a digital painting he made in 1985. (Minted in 2021, it is perhaps the ultimate Pop medium).
HOTA Gallery has been open for almost two years now with the prospect of this ‘blockbuster’ on the agenda for six years, well before their doors opened. The Mugrabi family are both art collectors and dealers, with their commercial concerns an issue that HOTA negotiated. Much has been made of the parallels between Pop art and the Gold Coast; both are proud promoters of glitter, commerce, and seduction by the superficial. However this exhibition sees HOTA investing in its reputation and future as a destination for major contemporary art experiences with a highly accessible yet well-rounded exposé of Pop art, from its beginnings to now.
Louise Martin-Chew is a freelance writer living on Quandamooka Country (Redland City) outside Brisbane. She contributes regularly to national art magazines and catalogues and has authored many books, most recently Margot McKinney: World of Wonder (Museum of Brisbane, 2022) and her first biography Fiona Foley Provocateur: An Art Life (QUT Art Museum, 2021).