By Rachel Helen Smith
Lichtenstein is often referred to as the most intellectual of the artists who championed American Pop Art. His most iconic paintings are comic-book images with bold outlines and primary colours. Whaam! and Drowning Girl are two of the best known examples. They show stereotypical figures entangled in melodramatic stories of love and war; from the climactic moments depicted we can infer the whole story. Yet paintings of this type account for only a small section of Lichtenstein’s oeuvre.
Pop Art vs AbEx
Lichtenstein is better understood in the broad context of Pop Art. Pop Art sought to challenge the other dominant art forms of its day: Expressionism from European and Abstract Expressionism (AbEx) from New York. The latter, made popular by the likes of Jackson Pollock and William de Kooning, used energetic techniques to create non-figurative paintings that display great emotional intensity.
Lichtenstein greatly admired de Kooning but in 1966 described the AbEx approach as a more “romantic mode of painting” to that which he was attempting. Instead, his approach has been described as a new form of realism, which introduced the banal and reductive motifs of adverts and comic strips into the realm of High Art. As art critic Rosenblum put it in 1963: “Lichtenstein has found his content in a fresh examination of the […] commonplaces of modern experience that had previously been censored from the domain of art.” This allowed him to toy with recognisable cultural stereotypes, pushing them towards abstraction in an effort to allow us to see them afresh. This was, he said, “a new form of painting”.
One technique was to expose the cold mechanics of commercial reproductive technologies. By painstakingly recreating the effect of Benday dots, Lichtenstein was moving towards an exploration of the optics of the new printing techniques. In 1970 he said: “I’m excited about seeing things and I’m interested in the way I think people saw them.” Particularly striking are the Rouen Cathedral paintings, which recast Monet’s explorations of light and colour in modern terms.
Quotation, Parody and Satire
This brings us to the question of Lichtenstein’s quotations of art history. Images by Monet, Matisse, Picasso and many other artists appear in his works alongside Mickey Mouse and pin-up girls. This led Life Magazine to ask in 1964: “Is he the worst artist in the United States?” The title was again a way of comparing him to AbEx artists, and in particular Pollock; in 1948 they had asked of Pollock: “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” What they found wanting in Lichtenstein was the sense of the artist’s inimitable genius, which AbEx presented. They claimed that all he did was naively plagiarized from great artists. And when he focused instead on advertising images, he reproduced “tedious copies of the banal”.
Some jumped to his defence, claiming that his works were ironic, and that he was parodying the commercial material which he used. Yet in 1975 he shook off the term, saying that ‘parody’ undermined the seriousness of his work: “I would rather use the term ‘dealing with’ than ‘parody’.” He described what it mean to ‘deal with’ something: he started with existing images that he “actually admire[d]” and set about transforming them, or “restating the copied thing in other terms” (1983).
Perhaps the best example of this is his series of Brushstroke paintings and sculptures, which were created in 1965 and 1966, and took art itself as their theme. They were a response to a comic which he saw, depicting a mad artist slashing wide brushstrokes across a painting in an emotional frenzy. Lichtenstein subverted the scale, focusing in on the brushstroke itself, eventually isolating it entirely from the artist’s hand and brush. Moving away from the spontaneous gestural aspect of AbEx, he soberly and systematically reproduced the shape of the brushstroke. He said: “[I]t’s taking something that originally was supposed to mean immediacy and I’m tediously drawing something that looks like a brushstroke […] I want it to look as though it were painstaking.”
This calculated, dispassionate painting style was closer to the mechanical technologies of reproduction that he was so interested in. Yet later in his work we see some ‘genuine’ brushstrokes alongside the spoof reproductions, which complicate a simple reading of the works as satire.
Am I Art?
The critic Roland Barthes said that when looking at a work of Pop Art, you can hear two voices, “One says: “This is not Art”; the other says, at the same time, “I am Art.” Which is to be believed?
In Lichtenstein’s definition, for a work to be classed as art it needed to contain “some subtleties, and it must yield to aesthetic unity” (1972). If we judge his work by this definition, it undoubtedly measured up: despite his deadpan renderings of superficial advertisements, his compositions are always tightly controlled, and his use of colour carefully balanced.
Yet it seems to utterly deny the overt personality which AbEx artists poured into their work. This is not art which achieves its status merely by virtue of the hand that painted it. The irony, of course, is that despite this self-effacing approach, Lichtenstein has become one of the most recognised artists of the twentieth century.
With 125 of Lichtenstein’s most definitive works on display in the Tate Modern exhibition, you can judge for yourself: Is this Art?