Pop the question: The essential A-Z of what makes a Pop artist

Warhol was one. So were Lichtenstein, Blake and even Hockney (for a while). But Emin and Hirst? As a new Tate exhibition claims them for the movement, Kevin Jackson presents his A-Z primer of Pop Art'

A is for America, and advertising

Pop Art was, and is, at least three or four distinct things; probably more. According to the curators of the new Tate Modern show, Pop Life, the essential elements include an unabashed interest in money-making and a genius for brand creation. (Warhol: "Good business is the best art.") This redefinition opens a few gates, and allows the show to embrace plenty of artists not usually regarded as heirs to Pop – Damien Hirst, Martin Kippenberger – as well as more obviously plausible inheritors such as Keith Haring and Jeff Koons. Art-historical purists, who would maintain that Pop was a period phenomenon (glory years: mid-1950s to mid-1960s), will not be happy. But one can see what the Tate people are getting at...

American Pop Art was always a different beast from the British kind. (And European Pop artists wandered so far along their own routes that it often seems perverse to refer to them in the same breath as Jasper Johns, Lichtenstein and co). Main reason: money. The American artists were picking up their themes from the bits and bobs of everyday life, in a country that was suddenly exploding with wealth, and producing and consuming as no society had ever done before: planes, cars, fashions, television sets... British and European Pop artists gazed across the Atlantic from countries that were still largely austere, pinched, monochrome. To the young British artists, 1950s America looked like another planet. Garish, maybe, but gorgeous, too.

Money aside, what were they about? Here's one attempt at summary: American Pop Art took for its subject the visual languages developed throughout the 20th century either to sell products – billboards, colourful packaging, brand logos – or as products in their own rights: pin-ups, movies, comics. It began around 1955, when Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns held their early shows in New York. Pop Art followed hard on the heels of Abstract Expressionism, and for a lot of non-highbrow people, it seemed to be far easier to "get" than the works of Pollock and Rothko. Fun, in fact. It is hardly surprising that an artistic movement which learnt from the seductive ways of advertising should have ended up pleasing countless poster buyers, as well as newly rich collectors.

B is for Britain

British Pop Art – a more theory-driven movement than the American version – is often said to begin with a brace of exhibitions: one in 1953 entitled Parallel of Life and Art, organised by Eduardo Paolozzi (see "P") and Nigel Henderson; and another in 1955, Man, Machine and Motion, curated by Richard Hamilton (see "H"), who became one of the two or three most famous British Pop artists. In a letter written in 1957, Hamilton proposed that Pop Art was "popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous and Big Business".

B is also for Blake (Peter, born 1932), whose most widely seen work of Pop Art was the cover for another kind of pop art – Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Richard Hamilton, Blake's instructor at the Royal College of Art, went on to design the so-called "White Album". Many pop musicians loved Pop Art.

C is for comics

A major inspiration. Paolozzi's I Was a Rich Man's Plaything (1947), a collage of images from American pulp magazines, is cited as the first authentic British work of Pop Art. In America, no one has been so attentive to the potential of comics as Roy Lichtenstein: "I know how you must feel, Brad..."

D is for David Hockney

Like so many of the artists who spent some of their formative years swimming in the currents of Pop Art, Hockney went on to different things; but Pop is decidedly there, in his RCA roots (like Blake, he was taught by Richard Hamilton). Very lively it was, too.

E is for Emin

Tracey Emin a Pop artist? So say the curators of Pop Life. Discuss, with reference to her advertisements for gin.

F is for flags

The most celebrated of countless Pop Art flags is probably Jasper Johns' Flag of 1954 – Old Glory, served pretty much straight up. But there are many variants, by Claes Oldenburg and others. Sophisticated rock musicians such as Pete Townshend knew all about this: hence the proliferation of Union Jack motifs in the mid-1960s.

G is for Red Grooms

Less well known in the UK than it might be, the genial, cartoony world of Red Grooms is well worth a detour.

H is for Hamilton

Richard Hamilton, born 1922, produced the defining work of British Pop Art - the collage Just What is it that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing (1956). Hamilton's output has been large, his influence far-reaching, and not only within the fine-art world: Roxy Music, led by his pupil Bryan Ferry, owed much to Hamilton.

I is for Indiana

From 1964 till last year, Robert Indiana was best known for his one-word picture LOVE, originally created as a Christmas card. In 2008, he revised it into "HOPE", donated it to the Obama campaign, and earned the Democratic candidate's fighting fund more than $1m.

J is for Jasper Johns

Appears in all the reference books on Pop Art, but is actually a neo-Dadaist. Discuss, with reference to his sometime lover Rauschenberg. Once appeared in an episode of The Simpsons, in which he was portrayed as a kleptomaniac. (Hence, a good sport.)

K is for kitsch

Pop artists implicitly suggested that the notion of industrialised bad taste – the subject of jeremiads by cultural critics – was nonsense. To denounce the products of popular "kitsch" was to confess to being prissy and eaten up with status anxiety. The debate has moved on since then. A little.

L is for Lichtenstein

There was a time when no self-respecting student's bedroom was complete without a Lichtenstein poster. Whatever the artist's intentions as a producer, the appeal to the consumer was obvious: having your Coke and drinking it, so to speak. Was it a biting, deadpan satire on the sheer stupidity of popular culture? Or did it revel in the brash primary colours and coarse energies of the comics we all loved when younger? Depends on whom you were trying to get into bed that night.

M is for Marcel Duchamp

Often cited as the grand precursor of Pop Art – and not mistakenly, as a lot of Pop Art took cues from Dada and Surrealism – Duchamp himself seems not to have greatly approved of what the youngsters were doing, and wrote about them witheringly. (Hamilton, incidentally, recreated Duchamp's Large Glass for a Tate retrospective in 1966.)

N is for Nigel Henderson

Photographer of graffiti, curator, pioneering theorist of British Pop. Despite some recent publications, still an underrated figure.

O is for Oldenburg

Claus. Maker of great big objects: clothes pegs, cakes, dribbly cheeseburgers – that sort of thing. Ironist. Probably.

P is for Sir Eduardo Paolozzi

An artist (1924-2005) as large in talent as in person, which is saying a good deal; also charming, generous and greatly missed.

Q is for quotation

One can think of Pop Art as essentially an art of quotation. According to Edward Lucie-Smith in 1974, the Pop artist "...does not re-create, he chooses. His choices are made from among images which have already been, so to speak, processed – not a living girl, but a pin-up in a magazine, not a real tin, a real package, but a tin or package seen in a coloured advertisement or on a poster."

R is for Robert Rauschenberg

Appears in all the reference books as a Pop Artist, but was actually a neo-Dadaist. Compare with "J", his sometime lover Jasper Johns.

S is for science fiction

A major source of inspiration for the British Pop artists. Paolozzi: "It is conceivable that in 1958 a higher order of imagination exists in an SF pulp produced on the outskirts of LA than [in] the little magazines of today..." Richard Hamilton, protesting against the Labour leader's policy on nuclear disarmament, produced one of the few politicised works of early Pop: Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland. But science fiction was also pure fun, as in the figure of Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet, who first popped up, as it were, in a Pop Art context at an influential 1956 exhibition at the Whitechapel...

T is for 'This is Tomorrow'

Here, Robbie took the form of a 17ft cardboard cut-out, holding a starlet in his arms. Other images included Marilyn Monroe and a giant beer bottle. The Pop Art game was afoot!

U is for Underground

The London Underground, that is. Every day, thousands of people walk past Paolozzi's cheery mosaics for Tottenham Court Road Tube station. A splendid example of Pop Art as public art. (Though "U" could also stand for the Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol's most enduring venture into pop music.)

V is for vulgarity

What on earth is that supposed to mean? (See "K is for kitsch".)

W is for Warhol

Campbell's soup, Brillo boxes, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Chairman Mao... A genius? A charlatan? A charlatan of genius? In any case, his flip, throwaway prophecies have trumped both George Orwell and Aldous Huxley in some areas. Neither novelist could have foreseen a Jade Goody. Warhol would not have turned a fake hair.

X is for X-rays

Deployed to polemical effect in the Parallel of Life and Art exhibition. Technology as art, but with a new wrinkle.

Y is for Yves Klein

Was this fascinating, mystical artist and judo expert truly a Pop artist? Yes, say the reference books. One justification for this otherwise baffling claim lurks at the end of our short A-Z...

Z is for Zen

A sensibility which, it is said, filtered into American Pop Art via Rauschenberg, who himself picked it up from the composer John Cage. Is this plausible? Maybe. One reading of Zen wisdom proposes that enlightenment comes from simply observing, without prejudice. It seems a very long way from comic books and Coke cans... but who knows? Perhaps Warhol was an unwitting Zen master.

Pop Life: Art in a Material World is at Tate Modern (020 7887 8888, www. tate.org.uk), London SE1, from Thursday to 17 January. Eduardo Paolozzi: The Jet Age Compendium runs until 1 November at Raven Row, London E1 (020 7377 4300, www.ravenrow.org)

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