By Lawrence Alloway
Abbeville Press Copyright © 1983 Lawrence Alloway
All rights reserved.
Excerpt from: Roy Lichtenstein
This book begins in the early 1960s, when Roy Lichtenstein was an exhibiting artist with more than ten years work behind him. That early work includes imagery of the nineteenth-century Far West and of American history, painted 1952-55, and an Abstract Expressionist phase, 1957-60. Why start a book on an artist after such well-developed periods? In 1961, my starting point, Lichtenstein’s paintings became flatter, simpler, and more highly finished, but at the same time he embraced popular culture as subject matter. This is the point at which his personal career converged with the public interest or, to put it another way, when he entered contemporary art history. Lichtenstein became a representative artist of his generation (born in the 1920s), in the most demanding art center in the worldNew York. That is the reason for starting at this date.
It is not my purpose to minimize Lichtenstein’s originsand indeed, some of this early work is reproduced herebut it seems more appropriate for the present to discuss the unity of his work in the last twenty years, as opposed to a recent tendency to divide it, and to discuss iconography as an intrinsic part of his art, hence the long chapter on the uses of quotation (chapter 5). I assume him to be a painter first, and since this is a short book I have concentrated accordingly on what seems to be the mainline, although the various periods of his sculpture are discussed briefly.
If we follow the sequence of an artist’s development, as the monograph form invites us to do, we are essentially involved in an act of shadowing. The written account is an analogue of the order of events, stylistic or biographical, in the artists life. Biography today is stretched between revelation and gossip. The revelatory mode shows the artist in extreme states of stress (Vincent van Gogh, Jackson Pollock), and gossip shows the artist as being like ourselves in the short term (Calvin Tomkins’s book on Robert Rauschenberg is like this). The drama of the first mode is not Lichtenstein’s style, and he has successfully avoided the domain of gossip. Biography in his case therefore rests largely on his profession; this withdrawal of art from the demonstrative can also be seen in studies of Frank Stella by William S. Rubin and Ellsworth Kelly by Eugene C. Goossen.
Lichtenstein was born in New York in 1923 and attended the Franklin School. Art was not taught there but he drew and painted at home, and when he left high school enrolled in summer art classes at the Art Students League under Reginald Marsh. He entered the School of Fine Arts, Ohio State University, in 1940 and was much influenced by Hoyt L. Sherman’s systematic analysis of picture construction. After being drafted by the U.S. Army and serving from 1943 to 1946, he returned to Ohio State to get his B.F.A. in 1946 and M.F.A. in 1949. In the 1950s he held several one-artist shows in New York galleries and taught, first at the State University of New York at Oswego and then, from 1960 to 1963, at Douglass College, Rutgers University, New Jersey. Here his contact with artists was extended to include Allan Kaprow, George Segal, and Robert Watts, among others. Thus he occupied a solid professional niche when in 1961 he began his Pop paintings.
In the 1950s, when he was both teaching and painting, Lichtenstein was acting as many artists do who need a second job to survive. In 1961 the original way of working that he formulated proved to have analogies with that of his contemporaries, and as soon as 1962 he was taken on by an exceptionally influential dealer, Leo Castelli. With his backing Lichtenstein was able to support himself purely as an artist, and in 1964, after a years leave of absence from Rutgers University, he resigned from teaching. Lichtenstein responded to this freedom by producing an abundant oeuvre, both purposeful and varied, as we shall see. His success was remarkable, leading to early retrospectives: in 1967 at the Pasadena Art Museum and two years later at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, both of which traveled to other museums in the U.S. and Europe. Given Lichtenstein’s reticence and his concentration as an artist, his biography is identified with his production rather than events outside the studio. The graph of professional achievement replaces the erratic tracks of personal day-to-day behavior. The artists development becomes of prime significance, not as it produces timeless objects but as a record in time of work done. This is not art for arts sake but art as evidence of a work ethic, validated by intensity of production and the pace of coherent change.
The logical succession of Roy Lichtenstein’s work, as we shall see, lends itself to a chronological ordering. The chief risk in this lies in the possibility of missing other kinds of order. Because the chronicle form emphasizes linearity it may lose sight of patterns of thematic recurrence, which call for a mode of criticism that crosses time rather than follows its succession. In what follows I have tried to indicate such recurrences, including the reappearance of the single image at different points in Lichtenstein’s work and his changing use of other peoples art.
There is a large picture book on Lichtenstein’s work of the 1960s by Diane Waldman and a book on the work of the 70s by Jack Cowart, both based on exhibitions. This monograph, covering both decades, aims to show Lichtenstein’s work as a continuous project. Introductions are written after books are finished, when the author knows what he or she has done, and this turned out to be my purpose: I want to represent Lichtenstein’s work from 1961 as a unity, though not a simple unit.
According to Cowart, "by 1970 the artist had left a Pop style and begun to employ new compositional lines." He proposes a chronological break in the artists developmentPop art and after, coinciding with the two decadesbut is it real? As I see it, the decades are linked stylistically and psychologically: the aesthetic premises of the 1960s are maintained, but amplified and enriched. When Lichtenstein began his paintings derived from comics in 1961 he was in his late thirties. What does one expect of artists at this time of life?: that they know their way and be in command of a personal style. For most artists, development consists in the extension, not repudiation, of the ideas of their early maturity. The mystique of the breakthrough, of the life remade, associated with Abstract Expressionism is rarely supported by specific examples. Lichtenstein, who was fifty in 1973, has kept his base in Pop art. This is the artists own view: "Almost everything I’m doing, he says, I did in the 60s." If this is the case, it is necessary to have a definition of Pop art that is in accord with Lichtenstein’s subsequent practice. A broad definition of Pop art as art about signs seems more useful than the narrow one of art that uses commercial subject matter (see chapter 3). Like most American art movements since World War II, Pop art was never a group with a shared program, but the artists were affiliated by generational and ideological affinities, perhaps even by publicity.
To key Lichtenstein’s later work to his earlier does not suggest repetition, simply a coherent progression. Something of this can be seen by comparing three paintings done over a period of eighteen years. Engagement Ring
(1961) has its tentative aspects: the screen of small benday-type dots used for the flesh is patchy, and the drawing, especially of the suitor’s coat, is staccato. The painting has a rawness that carries over something of the original impact of Lichtenstein’s work from the 1950s: one red is used for fingernails, lips, drapes, and wall, and one yellow for the blonde woman’s scooped hair and the lampshade on the opposite side of the picture. At the same time, we can see the artist approaching the integrated formality of his later work: Engagement Ring
is a fully characteristic painting, conceptually and manually, but it lacks the seamless aplomb that he was shortly to achieve.
This can be seen handsomely in We Rose Up Slowly
(1964). The woman is again blonde, the patterns of her hair echoed by undulant blue and purple lines that symbolize the underwater setting. The embracing couple occupy one panel and the caption a second: "We rose up slowly
as if we didn’t belong to the outside world any longer
like swimmers in a shadowy dream
who didn’t need to breathe
" The separation of words and image enables Lichtenstein to elaborate his linear and color conventions luxuriously. A part of this effect is the result of the tonal depth of the blue, which almost absorbs the sinuous black outlines. Also, the visual panel is square, providing space for a rich, equalized composition, neither horizontal nor vertical. The benday screens are smooth and even, capable of delicate color adjustment: the element of approximation in Engagement Ring
has been brought within a canon of control.
A later blonde appears in Stepping Out
(1978), a picture that shows both the increasing systematization of Lichtenstein’s procedures and the widening of his range of quotations. The woman is a Dali-esque invention, consisting of lips, one blue eye, and a hank of hair that flows before a small head-sized mirror. The male is quoted from late Fernand Léger. Lichtenstein’s distribution of solid yellow, blue, and red and of graduated dots, larger than earlier, is as emphatic as it is elegant, both firm and smooth.
These are all images of couples and all are mediated by the use of preexisting signs. The first shows the momentous boundary between being unattached and committed, the second an ecstatic moment of erotic happiness, and the third presents sexual differences as an Ovidian metamorphosis. This suggests not that Lichtenstein is uninterested in the subject matter provided by his sources, as is often argued, but a thematic recurrence that may be expressive. For all the double-takes (its a comic, its a painting; its a Léger, its a Lichtenstein), the works draw on the theme of romantic love. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Roy Lichtenstein by Lawrence Alloway. Copyright © 1983 Lawrence Alloway. Excerpted by permission of Abbeville Press.
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