Whaam! BANG! Zoooom: Encounters with the work of Roy Lichtenstein

Over the Easter holiday I managed to take in several exhibitions including the large retrospective on Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) on display at the Tate Modern until 27 May. It has been 45 years since the last solo retrospective of this important American artist in London. As a painter, sculptor, print-maker and decorative artist, Lichtenstein would come to be associated with the school of Pop Art which started in Britain in the 1950s but really took off in the United States in the 1960s. Pop Art would reflect and critique the growth of mass media and popular culture, the growing middle class and their associated economic purchasing power. Roy Lichtenstein  Bull Series of six paintings from 1973 As a counter-point to the Abstract Expressionism found in the works of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, Lichtenstein forged an alternative path that would include Andy Warhol and later Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Once you’ve seen one of his works you’ll never forget his immediately recognisable style. His works take their inspiration from advertising, aspects of popular culture such as Disney and other cartoon characters and later, from other painting titans of the twentieth century. I think the first time I encountered his work was at the MoMA in New York City where there were a series of Lichtenstein’s various studies of a bull. Each painting progressed to increasing levels of abstraction but all done in his ‘voice’ of characteristic faux Benday dots to simulate cheap printing and clean lines which I later learned were done by hand and not machine. Although it has the appearance of machine (reflecting the mass production aspect of the era), Lichtenstein wanted to remove the semblance of his brushstrokes which served as a further contrast to Pollock and de Kooning whose work is built around their strokes. Looking up close to a Lichtenstein, I can say that the former was a master at hiding these hand-traced lines. The volume of paint applied to Pollock’s work on the other hand has been causing headaches for conservators in museums around the world as the sheer weight of the paint over time takes its toll on the canvas.

Copying or Co-opting

One of the critical objections to his paintings (notably from comic book illustrators as they serve as source material for a large portion of his works) is that they are just copies of the original. My own take on this is that you are trying to compare different art forms which serve different audiences and have different aesthetic functions. In studying Music composition you learn to write a fugue in the style of Johann Sebastian Bach or a lied in the style of Franz Schubert to understand what is ‘great’ about these composers in order to progress your understanding of polyphony, harmony and structural form to develop your ‘craft’ and technique. In art there are similar paths following the example of the Beaux Arts school learning classical technique before developing a personal style. Further, when he is working through various levels of abstraction as in the Bull series, one is reminded of Picasso but Lichtenstein retains his own personal vocabulary. The same holds through in the various works in the Tate’s retrospective which gesture to Matisse, Mondrian, Monet and Cézanne. (Although the Bull series is not in the exhibition, the Tate does hold a set of the lithographs which can be viewed by appointment.)

Painting of Whaam! by Roy Lichtenstein at the Tate completed in 1963
Whaam! by Roy Lichtenstein (Tate Modern Collection)

One of the masterpieces on display is the Tate’s own Whaam! a diptych completed by Lichtenstein 50 years ago. What I find fascinating in Lichtenstein’s work is the tension between his use of popular elements and his commentary on the past, a so-called mix of highbrow and lowbrow. His source material is a panel from the All-American Men of War comic illustrated by Irv Novick in 1962. Here Lichtenstein enhances the typography of the original bubble and ‘sound’ of the explosion with strong primary colours. In this example, history comes full circle as it was the Futurists at the turn of the 20th century who first outlined onomatopoeic elements in their poetry and paintings. This has been synthesized and adapted by advertisers, designers (and comic book illustrators). Lichtenstein inverts this synthesis bringing it back into the artistic fold, reinforcing the power of the words in his own hand and with his knowledge and use of primary colours. Dave Gibbons, most famous as the co-creator of the DC Comics series, Watchmen, recently asserted Lichtenstien’s work was a mere ‘copycat’ of the original. He debates Alastair Sooke on how Irv Novick’s original comic illustration is superior to Lichtenstein’s Whaam! You can watch a small (4 minute) sample on the BBC. To his credit, Lichtenstein recognised the controversy in being accused of copying others’ work:

‘I know that my work has been accused of looking like the things that I copy and it certainly does look like the things I’ve copied. I believe I’m transforming this into something else or at least that I’m forming art. There’s no way to prove this.’ –Roy Lichtenstein

If not an acknowledgment that he needed to move away from direct parody or put more of his own stamp through his works, Lichtenstein’s style evolved away from direct cartoon details to one which took popular culture as a starting point but with reflection and critique of the past, in particular, Abstract Expressionism and Cubism. From here you get the sense that his works represent the ultimate synthesis of his craft. Another way of looking at the copying/co-opting issue comes from French philosopher Jean Baudrillard in his Consumer Society: Myths and Structures written in 1970 (with the English translation available from 1997) in which he writes:

“There is, strictly, no longer any privileging of the essence or signification of the object over the image. They coexist in the same physical and logical space, where they also ‘operate’ as signs. Whereas all art up to pop was based on a ‘depth’ vision of the world, pop regards itself as homogeneous with this immanent order of signs: homogeneous with their industrial, mass production and hence with the artificial, manufactured character of the whole environment, homogeneous with the spatial saturation and simultaneous culturalised abstraction of this new order of things.” –(Baudrillard, 115)

This new order marks the transition to the end of representational art. Comic book and painting coexist in this new order which Baudrillard distinguishes as a simulacrum. He further defines pop as a ‘game with the different levels of mental perception.’ (Baudrillard, 119) For him, Pop Art plays with the notion of difference and recognition and the inherent perception. Plagiarist and thief or progressive producer and idol? Hommage or copycat? You decide.

Learn more about Lichtenstein

lichtenstein 1968 documentary on the space
Click on the image to watch the 1968 documentary.

I would urge you to go to the Tate exhibition, but if you want a preview you can view/reserve the exhibition catalogue. Just log in to the Library’s catalogue: Roy Lichtenstein: a retrospective. Other works about Lichtenstein in the Library’s holdings can be found here. The Library also has a DVD on the wider Pop Art movement. Use ARTstor (one of the Library’s databases) to view more than 850 examples of Lichtenstein’s oeuvre. You will need to log on with your Library membership card in order to access this database. Watch a video (just under 20 minutes) of his last solo retrospective at the Tate in 1968 courtesy of the Arts Council of England (Click on the image of Lichtenstein in London above). The documentary contains interspersed commentary by Lichtenstein with unattributed impressions of the viewers (some insightful others snarky) which nonetheless remains a snapshot of the crowds of London in the swinging ’60s. A more recent 1990 documentary of Lichtenstein which was produced and directed by Chris Hunt centres around interviews conducted in his study by the presenter Melvyn Bragg. An earlier version of this post was published 5 April 13 here.


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