One of the many good reasons to see the exhibition of Roy Lichtenstein’s previous works of folk art, “Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948-1960″—which originates at Colby College Museum of Art in the spring, and comes to the Parish Museum of Art, in Water Mill, New York, on the first of August – is that it reminds us of something we tend to overlook when we get caught up in the critical act of trying to put pop music in the lineage of art history, or to deconstruct it as social criticism, which is that pop art is funny. makes you smile. There isn’t a lot of art movement that you can say that about.
The unusual thing about American pop art is (unlike British pop art, for example) that the main characters — Liechtenstein, James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol — had no personal relationship with each other, and developed their own pop art styles. independently. The other thing was that they all burst into the scene at the same moment.
The year was 1962. In February, in New York City, Liechtenstein had his first show of paintings based on comic book panels at Gallery Castelli, Rosenquist had his first solo show at Green Gallery. In July, in Los Angeles, Warhol performed his first solo pop art show, “32 Campbell’s Soup Cans” at the Ferris Gallery. In September, New Drawing of Common Things, a group exhibition that featured works by Lichtenstein, Warhol, Ed Ruscha, and Wayne Thiebaud, opened at the Pasadena Museum of Art.
In October, in midtown Manhattan, gallery owner Sidney Janice held a splendor called “The Neorealists: An Exhibition of Realist Paintings and Sculpture from France, England, Italy, Sweden, and the United States.” Twenty-nine artists were represented, including Lichtenstein, Warhol, Rosenquist, Thiebaud, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Indiana, and George Segal. The show was so massive that Janice had to use a second space to fit everything. In December, a “Symposium on Pop Art” was held at the Museum of Modern Art – and Pop Art became the name that still stuck.
Already multinational, as the show at the Janis Gallery showed, pop art quickly became global. By 1964, the year Warhol had his own show of Brillo-box at the Stable Gallery, in New York, and Robert Rauschenberg—not a pop artist but, in most respects, close enough—won the grand prize for painting at the Venice Biennale, Pop Art was everywhere.
Liechtenstein was addicted to paint. He was in the studio six hours a day. After he became famous, he and his wife spent some time in Captiva, off the coast of Florida, but he did not like to go there because he did not know what to do with himself on the beach. So he produced a very large range of works. (He died in 1997.) However, his name is still synonymous with his comic book paintings of the early 1960s—the first of which, “Look Mickey,” now in the National Gallery of Art, is dated 1961—stylistically and thematically, the All subsequent work emerges from those pieces. “Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making” is a look back at the bottom of the evolutionary ladder, to the era before the artist crawled to Earth.
Pre-pop Liechtenstein is just as funny as Bob Lichtenstein. His sense of sarcasm is very deep, but he’s always hilarious. Remarkably, from the outset, his subject was not things or people, but the representation of things or people. This may be a major feature of pop art – which is why labeling pop music as “common things”, “realistic” or “realistic” misses the point. The subject of pop art is not objects. They are advertisements, magazine and newspaper photography, packaging, labeling, signage. Pop artists represented the graphic environment in a consumer world.
For Liechtenstein early in his career, this consisted mainly of illustrations, advertisements, and transcription in textbooks. “The comment on making other people’s drawings” was how he explained what he was doing, many years later, to Calvin Tomkins. His usual pre-pop position was to reproduce the original image in a modern art style, his main models seemingly to have been Pablo Picasso, especially Paul Klee. He used Klee’s color palette and his pseudo-primitive, two-dimensional style of painting – goofy faces, lumpy bodies, streamlined shapes.
A notable early example is “Washington Crossing Delaware 2” produced in 1951, a copy (Liechtenstein made two of them) of Emanuel Lutzi’s famous painting as if it had been repainted by a first-grader. (Perhaps it is no coincidence that Leutze dated 1851, and painted Liechtenstein a century later. He seems to have enjoyed that sort of thing.)
Indeed, almost the entirety of Lichtenstein’s film consists of childish displays of boyish fervor: battle scenes, mechanical devices, cowboys and Indians, medieval knights, aviators, and deep-sea divers (perhaps inspired by the magazine’s coverage of scuba diver Jacques Cousteau). There is a brief period of pure abstraction in the late decade, although this work, too, appears to be an imitation or imitation of abstract painting. By 1958, I started seeing Mickey Mouse’s face, and felt that landfall was approaching.
What transformed Liechtenstein’s art into pop—the early Mickey he painted in Mickey into a comic book known for his primaries—was the same thing that changed Warhol’s art: adopting a hardcore style. Liechtenstein got rid of the graphic patina that had been almost a sine qua non of avant-garde art since the Abstract Expressionists of the late 1940s. Even Jasper John’s “American Flag”, first shown in 1958, features artistic motifs. Liechtenstein made his drawing appear mechanical, not manual. The stylistic shift was so spectacular that in the early days, pop art was sometimes referred to as the hardcore school.
In the case of comic book visuals, the transformative device was not, as it was in pre-pop work, reproducing them in the language of modern art. She reproduces them according to the compositional elements of Beaux-Arts. Liechtenstein wasn’t just copying the originals – a common misunderstanding. All of his images are drawn from actual comic book art, but he altered them, standardized their elements, and formally made them more like works of art. “I take cliches and try to organize their shapes to make them massive,” he explained. Life magazine, 1964, for a piece called “Is He the Worst Artist in America?” “The difference isn’t often that big, but it does matter.”