Gallery-goers are flooding into the show of pop art stalwart Roy Lichtenstein at the Hayward Gallery, helping to canonise this chapter in art history. Meanwhile, the US big hitters of Pop have taken pole position in the sale rooms. The collectability of pieces by Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist and Ed Ruscha has soared in recent years. Andy Warhol has become one of the most expensive late 20th-century artists, with Jasper Johns and now Lichtenstein close behind.
But what of that other key strand in Pop Art - the home-grown variety? From the 1950s to the 1970s, British artists created a parallel pop strand that similarly derived its imagery from mass media, advertising, photography, comic strips - Pop Art, in Lichtenstein's phrase, being "the use of commercial art as subject matter" - and yet retained a distinct flavour, both critical and celebratory. Indeed, many argue that British Pop came in advance of the American strain with Richard Hamilton defining the credo and British critic Laurence Alloway coining the phrase in 1958.
These points are made in an upcoming exhibition in Italy called "Pop Art UK: British Pop Art 1956-1972". It will show 60 works by key UK pop artists, from early progenitors Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi, through to the "RCA Group" - Peter Phillips, Allen Jones, David Hockney, R B Kitaj, Patrick Caulfield, Derek Boshier and Joe Tilson.
There have been few such group shows, says curator Marco Livingstone, the authority on British Pop Art and author of Pop Art: A Continuing History (Thames & Hudson). "There have been shows in Hamburg and in Bilbao, but this is the first group show of any scale," he said.
Could this underline a sense that British Pop Art has become fashionable? After all, the restaurant The Ivy has images by Tilson, Caulfield, Sir Peter Blake and Jones on its walls, and pop millionaires such as the Gallaghers have bought work by Blake. And Tate Britain's show this June, "Art and the 60s: This Was Tomorrow", is to feature Hockney, Blake and Hamilton. Although it doesn't sort British Pop separately, the art market tracker AMR (www.artmarketreport.com) shows a clear lift in international Pop Art prices in the last two years.
Mr Livingstone is cautious. "People have been talking about the revival for so long that I'm not sure it has never been out of fashion," he says. "But it's true to say that it's more expensive than ever. Early pop prints that were up for auction at Christie's recently had teasingly low estimates and went for way over."
Even so, Mr Livingstone says that British pop artists do not sell as a body of work. "It's more sensible to talk about them as distinct from each other," he says. "But most of the British artists are very undersold compared to the Americans, with the notable exception of Hockney." (He has become a kind of honorary American, with prices to match.)
He says: "The only British challenger is Richard Hamilton, although Allen Jones has a pretty solid market even though he hasn't had a regular gallery for a long time. And Caulfield - who is one of the great painters - has become more expensive since being bought by Saatchi and since his retrospective at the Hayward Gallery." His prices are still a tenth of Lichtenstein's.
Meanwhile, some British pop artists can be bought for reasonable sums. Livingstone won't say who they are for professional reasons, but artists like Richard Smith, Clive Barker and (early) Robyn Denny may be among them, and their work is ready for a market reappraisal.
"Certainly, British artists are undervalued compared to US artists," says Alan Cristea. His gallery has sold original pop art prints for 30 years - its current exhibition is Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, to coincide with the Hayward show. "You can't say that you'll get a bargain buying a British pop artist because no one knows what the future brings. But you can get a Caulfield print in a small limited edition for a few hundred quid. Compare that with a small Lichtenstein in a large edition for £8,500."
Mr Cristea isn't convinced that there is a market spike, but points towards a steady rise. "The fact is that each new generation rediscovers older ones and can relate to these artists. It's because the subject matter is immediate. But prices more or less go up with inflation."
The auction houses are more bullish. "There's definitely been a resurgence in 1960s Pop," says Howard Rutkowski, director of contemporary art at Bonhams. "The field is dominated by the Americans, and the British are carried along by comparison as they are so much more affordable. The case should be made to put them into an international context and introduce more Americans to them." Mr Cristea adds: "It's extraordinary how unfamiliar [Americans] are with English Pop Art."
Mr Rutkowski says that the British pop market is in waiting. "We don't get to see much really great British Pop Art, as the market prices haven't really pulled the classic pieces out," he adds. "Many of the artists are very active, and you see their post-1970s work more often. But the reassessment is ready - and the market is waiting to follow suit."
At Sotheby's auction house, which is having a Pop Art sale on 1 July, they are equally confident. "I'd say British Pop Art is a very collectable field," says Susan Harris of Sotheby's print department. "There's already a strong market in the UK for artists like Peter Blake."
Like Mr Rutkoswki, Ms Harris thinks that keynote works like Richard Hamilton's Swingeing London or Hockney's Rake's Progress images would sell well, should they enter the market, and that Hamilton is the key artist for collectors. "You'd expect to pay £4,000-£5,000 for a Hamilton print, particularly now that he's having a major retrospective at the Kunstmuseum in Winterthur, Switzerland."
Then there's Christie's, which is having a sale on 30 June called Pop Art 1954-1974, which will bring decorative and fine arts together.
"Pop Art is all about post-war excitement," says Simon Andrews, the head of modern design and the coordinator for the sale. "It's a very good time to look back at Pop." A Hockney drawing of the designer Ossie Clarke is expected to fetch £15,000-£20,000, while a Hamilton print is expected to go for £800-£1,200.
Many of the artists are still alive, and several, as Livingstone points out, have gone in different directions. "Remember also that the tendency extends into the 1970s with artists such as Peter Phillips and Allen Jones," Mr Andrews says. "In fact, in the last 10 to 15 years, a lot of artists have emerged indebted to Pop." Something about the vitality of Pop ensures it remains appealing and different to new generations.
'A wonderful mix of fun and seriousness'
The architect Professor Sir Colin St John Wilson who has given his collection to Pallant House in Chichester through the Art Fund, amassed a huge amount of pop art since 1946. Part of the gift are artworks by Peter Blake, Patrick Caulfield, Prunella Clough, Richard Hamilton, R B Kitaj, Eduardo Paolozzi, Colin Self and Joe Tilson - including Blake's The 1962 Beatles (1963-8), Hamilton's Swingeing London (1967) and 30 small studies for Caulfield's Portrait of Juan Gris (1963).
"It was a significant breakthrough for the 'new generation' as the phrase had it in the exhibitions for Bryan Robertson at the Whitechapel Art Gallery," says Sir Colin. "When people like David Hockney and Patrick Caulfield were introduced to the public, they were a breath of fresh air. It was a breakthrough for artists who were from unprivileged backgrounds: the direct equivalent to the Beatles." Indeed, this link became explicit in Peter Blake's commission to do the Sergeant Pepper's album cover, and Richard Hamilton to create the cover of The White Album.
Sir Colin agrees that the work has remained fresh. "It's never really been out of fashion," he says. "It was a wonderful mixture of fun and seriousness, with subject matter from modern life, a philosophy that has antecedents in Toulouse Lautrec and Degas." He says there is a case to be made for the progressiveness of British pop art. "Hamilton, Paolozzi and Blake were possibly in advance of the American art scene. But the London art scene didn't have the inbuilt entrepreneurial energy of the US." Sir Colin has slowed down his purchases. But his gift, to be shown by Pallant House next year, may help to revive the market. www.pallant.org.uk
FACT FILE NAMES TO WATCH
SIR PETER BLAKE
Along with Richard Hamilton - whose current auction record at Sotheby's is £117,600 for an individual work - Blake is becoming one of the most expensive of the British pop artists. His works include Alphabet, Girlie Door and Doktor K Tortur (currently on show in Modena, Italy).
Blake is seeing his prices rise too, along with his reputation as one of the founding fathers of British Pop Art.
One of the life-size cutouts he made for the set of the cover of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a full-length Marlene Dietrich, was auctioned recently for more than £80,000, and last year £170,375 was asked for his The National Gallery Madonna.
Until quite recently, Caulfield's works were considered by experts to be undervalued. The gallerist Alan Cristea bought his first Caulfield print in 1970 for £16: such prints are now worth in the thousands, while original paintings are likely to achieve five and even six-figure sums.
Prices for originals such as his Christ at Emmaus (1962) have been shunted up since his retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in 1999.
TILSON, PAOLOZZI AND OTHERS
Joe Tilson is a biggish hitter and, according to the website www.artistsearch.com, has been priced up to $43,240 (£23,500) for a painting, Colour Chart.
Other middle hitters include Eduardo Paolozzi and Colin Self. There are several other artists associated with Pop who, although enjoying critical acclaim, have not seen their prices perform as well to date, and could offer value to the canny art collector. Such names include Peter Phillips, Derek Boshier, Richard Smith and Clive Barker; but it is important to bear in mind that some of these artists have since moved a long way from the pop idiom.
GALLERIES AND SALES
* 'Pop Art UK: British Pop Art 1956-1972' at Palazzo Santa Margherita and the Palazzina dei Giardini of Modena, 18 April to 4 July. www.comune.modena.it/galleria/2004/popart.
* 'Art and the 60s: This Was Tomorrow' at Tate Britain, 30 June to 3 October.
* Waddington's Gallery sells Blake and Caulfield: call 020 7851 2200.
* Whitford Fine Art sells Clive Barker, Adrian Henri, Joe Tilson, Pauline Boty: call 0207 930 9332.
* Alan Cristea Gallery sells prints by several of the best-known British pop artists at 31 Cork Street: call 020 7439 1866.Reuse content