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“American Pop Art” exhibit gives Powers Art Center visitors a wide-angle view of the movement

Colorful pop art hangs in a museum
Kaya Williams
/
Aspen Public Radio
The Powers Art Center’s current exhibit, “American Pop Art,” showcases works by artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. The museum near Carbondale is home to a vast collection of pop art, with rotating exhibits on the ground floor and a focus on artist Jasper Johns upstairs.

About a quarter of a mile up a winding road off of Highway 82, tucked into a grassy hillside just upvalley from Carbondale, the stark modern architecture of the Powers Art Center doesn’t quite look like what you’d expect in the middle of a rural landscape with a sweeping view Mount Sopris.

Neither does the collection inside, where works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg hang on the walls, part of a new exhibit on “American Pop Art” that opened earlier this winter.

“It truly is pretty, pretty wild to have this museum literally in a cow pasture and feel like you're walking into the MoMA,” said Sonya Taylor Moore, the director of programming and outreach at the center.

It’s a fitting comparison, given that the works on the walls come from the vast pop art collection of John and Kimiko Powers, who also gifted works to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The center’s executive director Mellissa English recognizes that some visitors may be surprised by the trove of groundbreaking pop art they may find at the museum.

“I don't think people realize it. Being in a cow pasture, they think they're going to go into a barn and see a couple of walls with art,” English said. “But it was built for this purpose and is really an incredible gift to the valley and the visitors to our area.”

The Powers amassed their collection throughout several decades living in New York and the Roaring Fork Valley.

John Powers died in 1999, and his wife Kimiko launched the museum “to honor his memory as an art collector and his contributions to the art world in the valley and all over Colorado,” English said.

Their collection is now under the stewardship of the Ryobi Foundation, which focuses on the Powers Art Center and also maintains the hundreds of acres of land that surround it.

Before “American Pop Art,” the center showcased Warhol portraits and portfolios in an exhibit that ran at the same time as the Aspen Art Museum’s “Andy Warhol: Lifetimes” show last winter.

Moore is excited by the new exhibit that showcases not just a single artist but an entire movement she believes “revolutionized art” when it emerged in the 20th century.

“It completely, first of all, changed art, and how people viewed art, and what could be art,” Moore said. “And why I love it so much is, it really freed up art and let people have a little bit, possibly, more fun with art and expressing themselves.”

Pop art followed abstract expressionism, a movement linked to Jackson Pollock and “this huge explosion of, ‘this is how I feel inside, I have huge feelings,’” Moore said. “And then all of a sudden, we see a flag from Jasper Johns, and we see a Campbell’s soup can, and a lot of a lot of critics jumped on that.”

Though the subjects may appear simpler than works from earlier movements, Moore said pop art still represents a broader cultural context.

“People were buying and things were being made out of plastic and mass production was happening, and so yes, the artists were reflecting on that,” she said. “But I also just see them having a blast. I mean, you look at their work and you can't think they took themselves too seriously. They clearly had fun with that.”

Artistic representations of a hamburger
Kaya Williams
/
Aspen Public Radio
Visitors can create their own works inspired by Claes Oldenburg at the Powers Art Center near Carbondale. Oldenburg opened a space called “The Store” in 1961 that sold sculptures of everyday items like hamburgers and cigarettes.

Museum visitors can engage in that “fun” side of pop art in an interactive space in the museum, where people can create works inspired by everyday objects like shoes, hamburgers or cups of coffee.

That activity is inspired by Claes Oldenberg, who opened a space called “The Store” in 1961 that sold sculptures of items you would normally find in a bodega.

Exhibits on the ground level of the museum rotate through different artists.

But upstairs, the star is always painter, sculptor and printmaker Jasper Johns.

The current showcase of six decades of Johns’ works, titled “Things the Mind Already Knows,” is part of an ongoing focus on the artist at the center.

English said the Johns exhibition is an opportunity for visitors to “immerse” themselves in a single artist, and to explore the depth of his work.

Moore and English both consider Johns one of the pioneers of the pop art movement. The artist was also a friend of the Powers, and shared a philosophy with John Powers that “whatever you see, as the viewer, you're correct,” Moore said.

“There's no wrong in art,” Moore said. “If you see something and ask, ‘Oh, is that what he meant by that? Or is that why he named that piece that? John Powers and Jasper Johns would both say, ‘Yes, that's correct.’”

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Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.