In a city that cloaks itself in art, we are spoiled for choice. Our options do not stop at Basel’s borders, either. Last Friday evening, the exhibition Pop Art Design opened at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany for a four-month run. The show is packed with images that reflect a generation’s evolving sense of cultural identity, and coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of the Pop Art movement that began in New York.

Weil am Rhein, Copenhagen, Stockholm: a co-production

At the opening reception, Vitra Museum Director Mateo Kreis described the concept and layout for the exhibition, which for the first time, presents art and design in dialog with each other. Altogether the show unites some 140 works, half of them artworks and half design objects, supplemented with photographs, documents, films and texts. Many of the artworks come from the collections of Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and Sweden’s Moderna Museet, co-producers of the exhibition. Most of the design objects are from the collections of the Vitra Design Museum, whose curator Mathias Schwartz-Clauss conceived the exhibition. Pop Art Design will travel to Copenhagen, then Stockholm in 2013.

Artworks & objects in dialog

The dynamic relationship between Pop Art and design is presented thematically, juxtaposing utilitarian objects that double as sculptural symbols with images and things that can represent each other.

Andy Warhol was a graphic designer in advertising before he became a celebrated artist: at the Vitra, Warhol’s Coca Cola stool sits in front of a 1950s-era Coke vending machine. An early Warhol screen, displayed in the same room, is a highlight of the show.

Window displays on New York’s Fifth Avenue provided a frame for early masterpieces of such artists as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and the evidence for that is here on show, too, snugged up against Richard Hamilton’s “Gold Guggenheim” on an adjacent wall.

I found drama aplenty in the exhibition. A print from Warhol’s Mao series discusses politics with Studio65’s “Leonardo” sofa (1969), at center stage in the exhibition. Across the room Claes Oldenburg’s “Fagend Study” (1968) snares the spotlight. Upstairs, Roy Lichtenstein’s “Yellow Brushstroke” (1965) harmonizes with a Herman Miller sofa in the same color palette. Nearby, Studio65’s “Bocca” (1970), a sofa of bright red lips, anchors a grouping of works epitomizing the sexualized mood of the Pop Art era.

The show presses the museum’s eclectic space to its maximum, presenting works in nooks and crannies, as well as in the building’s larger rooms. Tupperware containers (!) in a glass case face a line of black and white photographs showing a past generation’s efforts to the envision home and personal technology designs of the future. Through this and other juxtapositions, it is suddenly clear how everyday life first came under the still-dominant influence of pop culture.

A Vitra show that is bold, intimate and fun!

Pop Art and Design: Beyond the exhibition

Vitra’s related programming through the exhibition’s run includes talks with artists and curators, film showings, and musical performances in the exhibition space, even an opportunity to play at being Warhol with Polaroid cameras. Look for parallel presentations on Pop Art at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, and at Kunstmuseum Basel.

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