Sunday, September 24, 2006

Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein

Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein
Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein was most famous for his large canvasses in which he reproduced bits of popular advertisements and, in particular, panels from comic books, complete with renderings of oversize process color dots.

As much as I enjoyed seeing representations of comic panels displayed large, I always had a problem with Lichtenstein’s use of them. My most basic objection was the fact that he was treating them the way Warhol treated soup cans (and also comic panels), in that there was an assumption that the act of isolating and painting them as he had was elevating them to the status of “art”, with the tacit assumption, of course, that they were not art in the first place.

This is not an assumption I endorse, obviously. Comic art (or graphic narrative if you want a high-tone term) is as viable an art form as any form of visual art or literature, and is actually the unique and special point where those two otherwise separate forms of human expression join.

So, despite the fun gee-whiz campy color dot fizz of it all, Lichtenstein’s uncredited swipes (as they are called in comic circles) from comic book artists’ work did not please me.

Not only did the panels not need to be “elevated” to the status of art, Lichtenstein’s renderings of them (image above, right) were flat, lifeless and seemingly clueless to the appeal of the original panels (above, left). This is possibly deliberate on his part, but the effect is a drab one regardless, and I have never seen anything from Lichtenstein that demonstrates an ability to draw as well as even the least talented second string comic artists whose work he cavalierly “borrowed”.

This is evident when you compare his renditions with the original comic panels, a process that has been spotty and difficult in the past but is now facilitated by a project called Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein by David Barsalou.

Barsalou has painstakingly found assembled and documented the original comic panels (and other sources) on which Lichtenstein based his panels.

I should point out that Barsalou probably does not share my attitude toward Lichtenstein’s work, and in fact, probably has the opposite opinion. I don’t want to seem like I’m putting words in his mouth.

His project, however, is a treat for me, because it makes it easier to say: “compare the originals”.

Link suggestion courtesy of Jack Harris.

11 thoughts on “Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein

  1. macmcrae.com

    You really missed the point of pop art.
    It is an evolution of dada. Its main goal was not to glorify bad comic art, but to destroy the highest expression of western culture by stealing really bad art and putting it in the most exclusive museums in the world and passing it off as priceless.It is a postmodern joke.

  2. Charley Parker Post author

    macmcrae,

    Thanks for your comments, but I have to disagree.

    To my experience, the postwar modernists, including the Pop artists, despised Dada, probably because the Dadaists had done it all, and better, half a century before.

    It’s true that the Pop artists’ elevation of “pop culture” items from trash to treasure was on par with Duchamp’s signed urinal and other “readymades”; but that reinforces my contention that the Pop artists were taking something that was “not art” (comics) and proclaiming it “art”.

    The goal of Pop art was to make the art buying elite comfortable with representational art again, in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, by proclaiming the representation of pop culture items as non-representational. (Actually, the goal of Pop art was to make gallery owners and certain artists rich; and make certain critics, notably Leo Steinberg, famous, but that’s another diatribe.)

    BTW, other readers should check out macmcrae’s blog, Mac McRae Illustration, which is beginning to be populated with fascinatingly odd creatures.

  3. macmcrae.com

    I respect your opinion. And thanx for the plug. :) But Pop art is the direct intellectual heir of dada. Period.

    Not only did the panels not need to be “elevated” to the status of art, Lichtenstein’s renderings of them (image above, right) were flat, lifeless and seemingly clueless to the appeal of the original panels (above, left). This is possibly deliberate on his part, but the effect is a drab one regardless, and I have never seen anything from Lichtenstein that demonstrates an ability to draw as well as even the least talented second string comic artists whose work he cavalierly “borrowed”.

    This passage thoroughly represents your misunderstanding of post modernism and of pop art in particular. Pop art has nothing at all to do with the artist as virtuoso. It has very little to do with the particular images either – it is about ideas.

    “The goal of Pop art was to make the art buying elite comfortable with representational art again, in the wake of Abstract Expressionism”.

    This statement is nonsense. I assure you that pop art had no such goal. It had nothing to do with comfort at all. The “art buying elite” has been hung up on representational art since the enlightenment. It needed no such help.

    Thanx for the stimulating conversation. :)

  4. Charley Parker Post author

    I doubt we’ll change one another’s opinion, but thanks, likewise.

    My statements about the “goal” of Pop art, and poatwar modernism in general, reflects my own cynical observations, of course, and not the stated opinions of the artists. I absoultely agree it had nothing to do with virtuosity, it was completely anti-viturosity. I’m not.

  5. Robin

    Interesting. I’m not a fan of RL, and seeing the superior character of the original panels makes me angry. Without the necessary historical context, I’d have to assume that RL has plagiarized from the poor to make himself rich. That he does it so badly is just salt in the wound for a person like myself, who values skill in an artist. Yes, I admit that I don’t have my art history very straight. I don’t like art for art’s sake, there must be some personal interest there for me. The funny thing is that by now, I think there are very few Lichtenstein fans who know or care what his intent was. His work is much more cliched than the comic art that he copied.

  6. David Apatoff

    I have to say, I agree with Charley on this. I am wary of anyone who claims to be the keeper of the Master Genealogy Chart for Culture (“Pop art is the direct intellectual heir of dada. Period.”) There were at least a dozen purported schools of art between dada and pop– these fads came and went like breath on a mirror in those days– so I don’t think the lineage of Pop is quite as unambiguous as macmcrae suggests. But before we invest a lot of time mapping the genome for pop art, I think Charley asks exactly the right threshold question: is it any good? And he reaches exactly the right answer: no. Macmcrae, the notion that this truly minor, “flavor of the month” art fad could somehow “destroy the highest expression of western culture” is truly a funny joke, “postmodern” or not.

  7. Charley Parker Post author

    Actually, I agree with macmcrae in that Pop art was based on Dada, but I don’t think Lichtenstein or any of the other Pop artists would have been quick to admit it, because it was a “been there, done that” relationship.

    As far as I can see, most (if not all) postwar modernism was just warmed-ever Dada with, as David pointed out, the “ism of the month” tacked on it, propped up with a ludicrous theory from a self-important critic.

    The difference was that the Dadaists, though they proclaimed themselves “anti-art”, did it with such style, wit and imagination that they created wonderful art anyway, they couldn’t help it. The modernists, on the other hand, particularly the Abstract Expressionists, were so bereft of imagination, so pompous, arrogant, lifeless and artless, that they truly did create “anti-art”. What an accomplishment.

    I don’t mind that so much, if someone wants to create soulless artworks based on obscure theories so weak-minded patrons can prove their intellectual superiority by buying them in the face of their obvious lack of visual appeal, go for it.

    What I do object to, and strenuously, was the deliberate and concentrated campaign by the postwar modernists to denigrate and devalue representational art, making it difficult for artists to pursue that path for over 50 years!

    That is unforgivable.

    But even the inveterate art snob patrons didn’t have a strong enough stomach to deal for long with the Big Secret (that even they found it b-o-r-i-n-g), and when Pop Art critics like Steinberg “blessed” Pop as non-representational, even though it contained recognizable images, the patrons ate it up, because they really did want something they could look at after all.

    Oh my, I seem to be ranting again.

  8. macmcrae

    Charley Parker I agree with you about modern art.
    It seems to be filled with talentless hacks and moron philosophers. Pop art is and was intended to be destructive. It is kind of like what new wave is to punk. And it is totally “anti-art”.

    And the bad part about Pop art is that it was much more than a fad. Many famous pieces are worth truck loads of cash today.

    I got much of my bootleg info on modernism not from art school but from lectures on post modern philosophies and critics like ts elliot. Trying to appreciate modernist word smiths is even more infuriating than groking the painters. But they give better clues to understanding modernism.

    BTW your blog is packed with awesome stuff.

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