IN the late 1950s and '60s, when Pop Art invaded the art world's dreams with a combination of brash disrespect and crass humor - like a noisy rush of sugar-coated cornflakes tipped into a handmade earthenware bowl on the breakfast table - it was suspected by some artists and critics of being a fearsome and flippant onslaught on the serious achievements of high art.

Some of its exponents didn't exactly deny the allegations. Andy Warhol talked approvingly of the subjects that grabbed him - "all the great modern things that the Abstract Expressionists tried so hard not to notice at all." Warhol had little hesitancy about blandly undermining such an aesthetic ivory tower with his poster-like renderings of soup cans and Brillo boxes and Marilyn Monroes. And in 1963, Roy Lichtenstein pointed out that "art since Cezanne has become extremely romantic and unrealistic, feedi ng on art; it is utopian. It has less and less to do with the world, it looks inward. ... Outside is the world; it's there. Pop Art looks out into the world; it appears to accept its environment, which is not good or bad, but different - another state of mind."

Changes in the art world hardly develop by plan, more by instinct and perceived need for new vitality. Pop Art was not at all a program or a concerted movement, though there's little doubt most of the artists lumped under the label knew about each other. Even if American Pop artists, as has been claimed, were extremely reluctant to admit that artists in other parts of the world, particularly Britain, were producing mainstream work of comparable originality and subject matter, there's no way they weren't aware of such work. The art magazines - Art International and Art News, for instance - were full of it, and there was a great flurry of exhibitions both sides of the Atlantic. Rather than chauvinism, it was probably more a matter of individual egotism: each artist concentrating hard on his own work and its promotion. And Pop Art certainly was promoted. With so many of its stylistic and thematic roots bedded in the world of advertising, it was to be expected that its spread and success would be speedy - aest hetic fast food. To that degree it was certainly "pop."

A large Pop Art exhibition in Europe - now on view in Madrid (Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, through Sept. 14) - shows just how international Pop Art, in its broadest definition, actually was, and how varied. Twenty to 30 years after its initial wave, its popularity appears to be holding its own and speaking to a new generation. When in London, this exhibition attracted an enthusiastic audience - though to someone who was there and aware first time around, it did seem a little strange to watch the earnestne ss with which this young audience was studying - even taking notes on - the work. Has it now become a kind of folk-nostalgia when then it was everything that was ephemeral, carelessly of its moment, disposable in theory if not in fact? Has it now become academic, when the one thing it wasn't then was gravely serious or portentous?

Of course, much of Pop Art was more intellectual, and more formal and lasting in style, than was sometimes realized in the 60s. But Lichtenstein claimed early on that the "formal content" of his apparently cartoon-style paintings would "become clearer in time." Actually it didn't take much time at all - and the same recognition of lasting, individual, and aesthetically respectful characteristics has for years now been admired in the work of others like Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, Tom Wesselman, Da vid Hockney, Patrick Caulfield - and even Warhol.

Nevertheless it would be a mistake to conclude that formal traits are the only thing about such work that has lasted. There is still a definite frisson to be experienced from the cool, almost noncommittal way in which these artists opened the floodgates to imagery which is still a universal part of urban experience and made it no longer contemptible or ignorable. They announced that there is almost always some aspect of experience to be found which art, in spite of its ambition and need for freshness, ha s somehow overlooked as beneath notice or consideration, but waiting there to feed some artist's vision.

Pop Art seemed open and new, but in retrospect it might be seen to have been a logical mid-20th-century extension of a surprising number of precedents. Admittedly art had rarely before seemed so irreverent, so democratic or populist, or so ordinary. It was meant clearly to be nonelitist.

Yet Picasso stuck old bits of newspaper onto surfaces to make collages, Duchamp exhibited a snow shovel in an art gallery, Manet painted a bunch of asparagus strung together as it was when bought at market, and Chardin depicted kitchen maids among old pots and pans. There have always been artists around, surely, keen to deflate hierarchical assumptions, over-solemnity, and the determination of the upper classes to keep art to themselves.

It's particularly intriguing how often the Pop artists used food - mass-marketed forms of food above all - as their symbol of consumerism, of the tricks of commercialism, of the turning of a necessity into an image in order to make it salable. A touch of satire must be present in Oldenburg's giant hamburgers, banana splits, and ice creams, in his refusal to separate the commodities in a store from those put in an art gallery, and in Thiebaud's highly confectioned cakes, his slices of pie, cakes, his glas s ball full of multicolored jawbreakers, wonderfully turned into paint. At the same time, there is a purely delicious surprise in the translation of such trivialities into paintings or sculptures, a mischievous elevation of such subjects.

Sculpture and painting was changed by such subject matter; by the undoubted relish of the artists when using it for their own ends. Pop Art hovers, without landing, between distaste for the commonplace and enjoyment of it. Part of Pop Art's enduring fascination is that the Pop artists, in varying degrees, made images which were ambivalent, giving space to the viewers to "buy" their vision or not.

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