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Reflections on Lichtenstein

Whether we realise it or not, we all know Lichtenstein, if not the man, then certainly the work.

  image: Roy Lichtenstein Shipboard girl 1965 colour offset lithograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
Roy Lichtenstein 'Shipboard girl' 1965 colour photolithograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge

Born in New York in 1923, Lichtenstein studied at the Art Students League, New York, in 1940 before entering Ohio State University; School of Fine Arts. In 1943 he was drafted into the US Army and served in England, France, Belgium and Germany. In 1946 he returned to Ohio State University where he completed his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and commenced postgraduate studies. He received his Masters in 1949. He then taught at a number of American universities including Ohio State, and the State University of New York, Rutgers. In 1967 he was appointed Regents Professor at the University of California, Irvine. In 1970 he returned to New York. He was awarded a number of honorary doctorates within the USA and abroad. Before his death in 1997.

While in the army, Lichtenstein was an abstract expressionist. Gradually, however, during the decade following his discharge, he turned his attention increasingly to imagery drawn from such popular cultural sources as commercial advertising, romance and war comics, and cartooning in general.

In the print Shipboard girl of 1965, for example, we see Lichtenstein’s mature style in its inchoate form. The image exemplifies all the qualities that his many paintings and prints of young women culled from romance comics exhibit — a girl, usually blonde, in extreme close-up, lips parted, her head tilted at an angle, with enormous, liquid eyes, depicted at a moment of emotional climax. In this instance, the girl’s head is tilted back; perhaps she is sunning herself; perhaps, however, her closed and slightly frowning eyes and parted lips indicate some other erotic action going on just out of frame. The sly humour is characteristically Lichtenstein. Lounging in the background is a life-buoy, a typically comic iconic transposition of the classically clichéd real-life boy who waits, patiently, to rescue her from the, in this case, as-yet-unreached turbulent seas of love.

Lichtenstein’s favourite source for such material was the work of the comic illustrator, Tony Abuzzo. As Kirk Varnedoe points out, Abruzzo discovered one particular codified representational device that has since become almost universal. While parted lips were pleasing, teeth, he found, were not. These he — and following him, Lichtenstein — replaced with a streak of unvariagated white.1 It is also possible, of course, that they were both aware of the work of Man Ray, some of whose retouched and handcoloured photographs — Portrait of a tearful woman, 1936, for example — exhibit not only this particular feature, but also all the generic attributes listed above. In addition, the general format of works such as this, with its foregrounded figure and its woodcut-like curving lines, reveals a debt either directly or indirectly to Japanese ukiyo-e prints, particularly the early work of Hiroshige.

 What is salient about this work, however, is that here in embryo we have all the formal features which will come to characterise Lichtenstein’s subsequent output. Here we see him working towards the articulation of a visual syntax and vocabulary, in other words, a style which will become uniquely identifiable as his and which, ironically, over time and in its final formulation will displace the original in the very cartoon context from which it was derived. The characteristic elements of this style are flat areas of unmodulated colour, schematised cartoon-like outline, the removal of anecdotal detail, and, more importantly, the use of dots to simulate the Benday dots of mechanical reproduction.2 The only thing missing from Shipboard girl is Lichtenstein’s frequent inclusion of generic phrases appropriated from the same sources, such as: ‘I love you too, Brad, but…‘, ‘Sweet dreams baby — POW!’, or ‘WHAAM!’.

image: Roy Lichtenstein Reflections on Crash 1990 colour offset lithograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
Roy Lichtenstein 'Reflections on Crash' 1990 colour screenprint, lithograph, woodcut, collage, embossing Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge  

During the sixties Lichtenstein came to realise that the real subject matter of his work was not the content of his low art sources, but their form; that what he had (inadvertently) discovered was a visual language that he could universalise. Thus, in 1969, he embarked on a series of printworks using not low art but high art imagery. The first of these he based on Monet’s famous paintings of Rouen Cathedral and his equaIly famous Haystacks. Lichtenstein chose a single viewpoint for his Cathedral series, recombining the plates in a number of different colours to represent, as several commentators have suggested, changes in light and atmosphere. However, it is in fact the underlying Benday-dot structure of these images which gives them the impression of being shot through with light; it is this which gives them their delicacy, their ephemeral, almost evaporative quality. Similarly, it is this which creates their odd perspectival inversion, a kind of retinal disintegration which sees the image disappear the closer you get.

Other series followed. The Bull profile series of 1973, for example, recalls Theo van Doesburg’s Composition (The cow), 1916—17, and a number of works by Picasso. It begins as an appropriated yellow-pages image of an already schematised bull and ends as a barely recognisable Constructivist abstraction.

What is common to both of these series, and to others based on high art subject matter, is their deliberately subversive effect. By uniting low art form and high art content in a way that is both humorous and pugnaciously irreverent, Lichtenstein was able to imply a debunking of the newly established canon of modernist works and to de-deify not only its practitioners but also its collectors. At the same time, and ironically, he joined them, and we see through his work an acknowledged tradition of quotation that stretches back through art history from Picasso to Velázquez, from Manet to Marcantonio Raimondi. Subsequently, as in his masterpiece Reflections on Crash of 1990, we see him incorporating references to his past work, as though the circle were now almost complete, as though his own work had become infinitely self-referential and, hence, self-sustaining.

image: Roy Lichtenstein 'Haystack #3' 1969 colour lithograph screenprint Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

Roy Lichtenstein 'Haystack #3' 1969 colour lithograph, screenprint Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge

In 1995 , the National Gallery was fortunate to acquire La nouvelle chute de l’Amérique [The new fall of America], Lichtenstein’s only illustrated book. With eleven poems by Allen Ginsberg and ten etchings by Lichtenstein, it is an exceptional example of the contemporary livre de luxe, as unique in terms of bringing together two living American artists of such recognised stature as it is unsurpassed in the eloquence with which it juxtaposes their parallel preoccupations. Typically for Lichtenstein it re-visits, re-invents or re-articulates imagery drawn from earlier work. The image which opens the work is a tour de force of simplicity: the two graphic fundamentals of low-culture cartooning, that is, Benday dots used to imply tonal gradation and hatching used to indicate shading, are united here in a re-articulation of the quintessential American symbol — the Stars and Stripes. The characteristic reductive humour of this image, functioning as it does as a mock heroic herald to what follows, is deliberate. And what follows is a Walt Whitmanesque, tongue-in-cheek journey across and through the America of one’s Self.

The National Gallery has by far the best collection of Lichtenstein’s work in this country and one of the better collections world wide. What this exhibition demonstrates, with its eighty or so images, is that Lichtenstein is instantly recognisable, and that, whether it is as a painter, printmaker or sculptor, he is one of the few artists of the late twentieth century who can genuinely claim to have entered the collective subconscious of our postmodern era.

Mark Henshaw
Curator, International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books

1 Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik, High and Low: Modern art —popular culture, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1991, p.197.
2 Named after the American illustrator, Benjamin Day, who discovered that by using a screen to produce dots of varying sizes he was able to simulate tonal gradation in processes of commercial photomechanical reproduction.

Further information will be added to this site as the National Gallery proceeds with its research and documentation.

Last updated January 2017