IN the mid-1960s, Andy Warhol gave Bob Dylan one of his paintings, a ``Silver Elvis'' - which Dylan promptly traded to a friend for a couch. Today, in the wake of Mr. Warhol's recent death, the painting is worth more than $500,000. The episode, however, was typical of a period of extreme ferment during the late 1950s and the '60s, when a new kind of art hit the American scene, and no one was quite sure how to take it. It was an art concerned primarily with the extraordinary rise of mass culture in a postwar America characterized by the atom bomb, consumerism, mass media and marketing, pre-packaged suburban utopias, and soon, in the heat of the Vietnam war - questions about the future of American democracy and culture.
It was the art of Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, and others. These new postwar artists not only broke free from the Abstract Expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock, who after many years of struggle were gaining respectability. They also broke with the accepted 20th-century artistic modes molded in Europe and legitimized in New York with the help of powerful art critics such as Clement Greenberg.
They were, in fact, the first artists to make the ``middlebrow'' culture of an industrial, middle-class America the main subject of their work.
If art must connect with the concrete experience of modern life, as the postwar artists felt, it must include the symbols, icons, products, and experiences that were becoming known as peculiarly American, and that were shared by a growing number of Americans: Coca-Cola, tract houses, barbecue pits, the Ford ``T-bird,'' the American eagle, Marilyn Monroe, Betty Crocker's chocolate cake, George Washington, TV, civil rights.
``Made in U.S.A.,'' an exhibition currently showing at the University Art Museum in Berkeley, Calif., and scheduled to tour two other cities, is the first major retrospective of American art of the '50s and '60s, works that have become high-priced and far flung.
Sidra Stich, curator of the University Art Museum, spent three years raising money for this exhibit and collecting the work of the some 90 artists included. She has also produced an impressive 275-page interpretive catalog of the show, which includes her own extensive text and three essays by others.
What was America in the mid-20th century? This was the question the artists of the time chose to deal with. Was it identical rows of gray high-rise apartments set alongside a soulless freeway on-ramp? Was it Jack Kennedy? Disneyland? Bob Hope? Serial killers? Was it the ``lonely crowd'' - or the ``organization man''? Selma, Ala. - or Tranquillity Base? Paradise Found - or ``Apocalypse Now''? Robert Rauschenberg's imagistic collages suggest it was all these things - happening at the same time.
But even if America had become ``thoroughly modern,'' a powerful homey streak persisted. As artist Allan D'Arcangelo recently said of Warhol's famous Campbell's soup can: ``Warhol was telling America, `This is you. The soup can is what you really understand at a deep gut-level. You are not all the other cultural trappings and affectations. This is what you really know.'''
The artists - who just as often exhibited in small galleries in Boston or San Francisco as in New York - didn't aspire to be ``fine artists.'' Some mocked the idea. They were busy searching - like their Beat poet counterparts - for the art of ``direct experience.'' Of the now.
One result is the playfulness of the art on view here. Wayne Thiebaud painted rows of hot dogs. Claes Oldenburg made a pile of five-foot vinyl french fries with vinyl ketchup, and wrote, ``I'm for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all, an art given the chance of starting at zero ... that embroils itself with the everyday crap and still comes out on top.''
But unlike such commercial ``Pop'' artists as Peter Max, the postwar group was not merely out on a lark celebrating yellow submarines and clouds. ``Made in U.S.A.'' establishes that there was a serious and penetrating social insight among many of these artists. Vija Celmens's ``Freeway'' (1966), for example, takes up themes that would become rallying cries in the '70s - the dissociation of man from the natural environment, and the spiritual bleakness of mechanization.
The place of America's revered patriarchs also comes into question in these works: In one of his works, Rauschenberg places the visage of Lincoln in a collage with a tin-stamped serial number, a symbol of regimentation and of the new ``throw-away'' culture. Tom Wesselman sets the austere image of Washington alongside a live television screen - juxtaposing the ``sacred'' and profane.
If the '50s and '60s marked a fundamental shift in the American consciousness, one of the main causes was the bomb. ``The power to destroy the world had an incalculable effect,'' curator Stich said in an interview. ``Here, for the first time, was finality within the consciousness of mankind.''
The postwar artists did not take up the bomb in a literal way. But the possibility of mass destruction, and the tensions of the cold war, certainly affected their work. Living on the edge, they found that many of the small wonders of American life (TV dinners, modern appliances), or supposedly ``dramatic'' headlines in tabloid newspapers actually seemed mundane. In their work, these can even take on a strange or unreal quality: The box of new, improved Brillo pads, reproduced by Warhol, for example, can seem bizarre. In a world capable of exploding, here were Americans going bananas over the scrubbing power of a steel wool soap pad.
This ``strangeness'' is explored in a lighter vein through the various takeoffs on comic strips, which had become phenomenally popular in the '50s and '60s. Roy Lichtenstein, for example, poked fun at the false melodrama and often stilted dialogue found in the comics.
Throughout ``Made in U.S.A.,'' one is struck by the incredible diversity of the postwar group: Wayne Thiebaud's thick, gooey, ``eatable'' paints; Edward Kienholz's milk-can and bicycle-seat sculpture; Ray Johnson's retouched images of Elvis Presley. The artists took in a double portion of the spirit of their times - possibility, energy, release, or, as the Dylan song title framed it, ``Love Minus Zero: No Limit.''
In short, the exhibit is an excellent capsule of a seminal cultural period (as are films like ``Platoon'' and the Beatles' recently rereleased ``Sgt. Pepper''). The art will be valuable in illustrating future histories of that era.
The ``Made in U.S.A.'' exhibit will be on view in Kansas City (July 25-Sept. 6), at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and in Richmond, Va. (Oct. 7- Dec. 7) at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
The catalog, ``Made in U.S.A.: An Americanization in Modern Art, the '50s & '60s'' ($24.95 soft cover; $60 cloth), is available from the University of California Press, Berkeley, Calif.