In the early 1960s a spectre was haunting New York, the spectre of banality. Hannah Arendt was publishing her articles on ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ in the New Yorker, and the mostly Jewish intellectual community associated with Partisan Review, Dissent and Commentary was appalled by her notion of the ‘banality of evil’ . The very phrase (many readers got no further) seemed to trivialise the Holocaust, to make its fundamental crimes literally superficial. Meanwhile a new breed of artists was advancing another brand of banality, with divisive effects on the art world. In 1960, independently at first, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol had begun to paint cartoons and advertisements drawn from tabloid newspapers of familiar characters and generic products – Popeye and Mickey, tennis shoes and golf balls. When Lichtenstein moved on to comic strips – romance and war comics were his preferred material – the accusations of banality only grew more shrill. The profundity endangered by the cold surfaces of this new Pop art was the pathos of Abstract Expressionist painting and its feverish gestures; mainstream critics, who had finally come around to Jackson Pollock and company, were not happy about this turn of events. In 1949 Life had showcased Pollock under the banner: ‘Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?’ In 1964 the same magazine profiled Lichtenstein under the heading: ‘Is He the Worst Artist in the US?’
The charge of banality was first to do with content. To the delight of some, to the disdain of many more, Pop threatened to open the floodgates to commercial design and to drown out fine art altogether. Modern artists had long poached from the brash genres of mass culture (posters in Toulouse-Lautrec, newspapers in Picasso and so on), but they did so mostly to reinvigorate staid high forms with feisty low contents. With Pop, on the other hand, the low appeared to overrun the high, perhaps to subsume Western Painting like a distinguished old company that had gone bust. (Did anyone besides Warhol foresee that ‘Disney Buys Out Art World’ might be a plausible headline today?) The accusation also involved procedure. Since Lichtenstein seemed to reproduce advertisements, cartoons and comics directly (in fact he modified them more than Warhol), he was criticised for a lack of originality and, in one case at least, menaced with a charge of outright copying (in 1962 Lichtenstein had adapted a couple of didactic diagrams of portraits by Cézanne made by an art historian named Erle Loran in 1943; Loran surfaced to protest loudly). Not so coincidentally, when Duchamp had presented his readymade urinal as art forty-five years earlier, he’d been charged with similar crimes, only in more severe terms – ‘obscenity’ and ‘plagiarism’.
Of course Lichtenstein did copy (guilty as charged), but he did so in a complicated fashion; even his use of the comic strips was not as straightforward as it might appear. He would select one or more panels from a strip, sketch one or more motifs from these panels, then project his drawing (never the comic) with an opaque projector, trace the image onto the canvas, adjust it to the picture plane and finally fill in his stencilled dots, primary colours and thick contours – the light ground of the dots first, the heavy black of the outlines last. Thus, while a Lichtenstein might look industrially ready-made, it is actually, as Michael Lobel demonstrates in his careful study, a layering of mechanical reproduction (comic), handwork (drawing), mechanical reproduction again (projector) and handwork again (tracing and painting), to the point where distinctions between hand and machine are difficult to recover. In different ways, Warhol, Richard Hamilton, James Rosenquist, Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke produce a related conundrum of the painterly and the photographic; it is a prime characteristic of Pop art at its best.
Lichtenstein’s work abounds in manually made signs of mechanically reproduced images, but his signature dots crystallise this paradox of the handmade readymade, because they are a painted depiction of a printed code, the so-called Ben-Day dots devised by Benjamin Day in 1879 as a technique to produce a printed image by means of gradations of shading translated into a system of dots. More important, the Lichtenstein dots convey the sense, still fairly novel at the time, that mechanical reproduction had resulted in a sea change not only in representation but in appearance as such, that semblance was now somehow mediated, or ‘screened’ – printed, broadcast or otherwise viewed beforehand. This is another strong theme of Pop, again with significant variations wrung by Warhol, Rosenquist, Hamilton, Richter and Polke.
Where did the artist (or anyone else for that matter) stand in this brave new image-world? Did Lichtenstein ‘cling’ to notions of originality and creativity, as Lobel argues? True enough, when he appropriated images of products, he effaced the brand-names (Warhol retained Campbell’s, Brillo and all the rest); he ‘Lichtensteinised’ his objects, as Lobel says, and worked ‘to make the comics look like his images’. This tension between traces of distinctive authorship and signs of its evident eclipse is pronounced in Lichtenstein, but Lobel sees more anguish here than the artist did. ‘I am not against industrialisation, but it must leave me something to do,’ Lichtenstein remarked in 1967: ‘I don’t draw a picture in order to reproduce it – I do it in order to recompose it. Nor am I trying to change it as much as possible. I try to make the minimum amount of change.’ This is the ambiguous line that Lichtenstein walked: to copy print images but to adapt them to painterly parameters; to ‘recompose’ them in the interest of pictorial form and unity, in the name of distinctive style and subjectivity, but only enough to register these values – to register them as endangered – and no more.
The other charge of banality, the one to do with the content of dumb adverts and melodramatic comics, is more difficult to challenge, but here, too, the Lichtenstein case is not as simple as it appears. His lowly subjects did offend tastes attuned to the lofty themes of Abstract Expressionism, but in formal terms Lichtenstein was not so contrarian. In fact he showed that comics and the like could be made to serve some of the goals set for high art from Rembrandt and David to Rothko and Barnett Newman: not only pictorial unity and dramatic focus, but also ‘significant form’ (as Roger Fry and Clive Bell urged) and ‘the integrity of the picture plane’ (the vaunted ‘flatness’ demanded of Modernist painting by Clement Greenberg). Jasper Johns had played a similar trick with his paintings of flags, targets and numbers in the mid to late 1950s; as the critic Leo Steinberg pointed out, these works met Greenberg’s criteria for Modernist painting – as well as being flat, it should be self-contained, objective, immediate – but by means that Greenberg found utterly alien to such painting: the kitschy images and found things of mass culture. If anything, Lichtenstein forced together the poles of fine art and commercial design with more sparks than Johns, for his adverts and comics were as flat as any flag or target, and more vulgar to boot.
In this way Lichtenstein seemed to challenge the oppositions on which pure painting was founded in the 20th century: high v. low, fine v. commercial, even abstract v. representational. Take Golf Ball (1962), an iconic representation of a dimpled sphere in black and white (for shadow and light) on a light grey ground. It is in-your-face banal, but it is also not too distant from Mondrian’s pure plus-and-minus abstractions, also painted in black and white. On the one hand, the near abstraction of Golf Ball tests our sense of realism, which here as elsewhere Lichtenstein shows to be a conventional code, a matter of signs without too much resemblance to actual things in the world (in this respect he is current with Roland Barthes or, more pertinently, with Ernst Gombrich, whose Art and Illusion he read at the time). On the other hand, when a Mondrian begins to look like a golf ball, then the category of abstraction might be in trouble too. Modernist painting often worked to resolve figure into ground, to collapse spatial depth into material flatness. Lichtenstein gives us both – the illusion of space and the fact of surface – and if there is a radical edge in Pop it lies here: not so much in its thematic opposition of low content and high form, as in its structural similarity with exalted painting. You can understand why, when cartoons and commodities appeared in the metaphysical space once reserved for Rothko’s numinous rectangles and Newman’s epiphanic stripes, some people got upset.
In this way Lichtenstein performs a visual short-circuit: he delivers both the immediate effect of a Modernist painting and the mediated look of a print image. Consider an early Pop work like Popeye (1961), illustrated here, which shows the spinach-enriched sailor knocking out his rival Bluto with a roundhouse left. It might be an allegory of the new Pop hero sending the tough Abstract Expressionist to the canvas with a single blow. Yet the important thing is the blow: Popeye is arguably as instantaneous in its impact as a Pollock; it smacks the viewer in the head as well. (Lichtenstein liked to underscore the force of this blow with onomatopoeic comic-vocabulary: his punches go ‘Pow’, his guns ‘Brattata’.) Lichtenstein’s work, like Pollock’s, projects a viewer who is all eye, who takes in the image in a flash, in a ‘pop’ of immediacy.
To what end is this demonstration made? In Johns, the idea that a target could do much of the work of a glorious painting by Pollock is ironic, with the lite subversiveness that irony entails. In Warhol, the appearance in the exalted space of such a painting of a news-service photo of a gruesome car crash or a poisoned housewife is more scabrous, and its subversiveness still cuts forty years down the road. For the most part Lichtenstein puts high and low together less to undo the opposition than to reconcile it; as Lobel tells us, he was proud of his formal sense, his tasteful ability to make good paintings out of banal pictures or mawkish stuff. Yet this reconciliation is hardly his doing alone; it also registers a historical collapse (or at least convergence) of old binaries of high and low, Modernist and mass.
Lichtenstein was well prepared for this convergence. In the late 1940s, as a GI Bill student at Ohio State University, and in the 1950s as a teacher in Ohio and upstate New York, he worked through his own catechism in Modernist art: he painted along Expressionist lines, then in a faux-naïf style (to which he adapted Americana themes that anticipated his Pop art), and briefly in an abstract mode. He became adept in a repertoire of Modernist styles and avant-garde devices: the gestural stroke, the Cubist play with signs (a few black lines to signify a shadow, a white patch to signify a reflection and so on), the abstract forms of grid and monochrome painting, as well as the readymade object and the found image – all of which he received second-hand. These devices appear later in his work as mediated, as if in repertoire or review, held together by the iconic shapes supplied by the advertisement or the comic strip: that is, ironically, by the very representational mode that avant-garde art had worked to overthrow. This is one aspect of his Pop that does have an edge.
Edgy, too, is his demonstration of how much the codes of advertisements and comics have in common with the devices of the avant-garde (as often with high-low relationships, the influence works both ways). Of his own pictorial language Lichtenstein once remarked: ‘Mine is linked to Cubism to the extent that cartooning is. There is a relationship between cartooning and people like Miró and Picasso which may not be understood by the cartoonist, but it definitely is related even in the early Disney.’ He might have added Matisse, Mondrian and Léger, among others. They are all there, read through the comics, in his paintings: the ambiguous signs of light and shadow in Picasso, the bold but suave contours in Matisse, the strict primary colours in Mondrian, the semi-cartoonish figures in Léger, all put to different purposes (if the primaries signify pure painting in Mondrian, in Lichtenstein yellow is also likely to signal a beautiful blonde, red a dress, blue the sky). He recomposes his ads and comics to fit them to the picture plane, but more important, to expose these Modernist connections and to exploit them rhetorically. (These connections soon became too patent when he began to Lichtensteinise some of the masters directly, with paintings after Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian and others.)
It is possible to conclude from this commingling of Modernist art and comic strip that by the early 1960s most devices of the avant-garde had become little more than gadgets of commercial design. And certainly this is one dilemma of the postwar or ‘neo’ avant-garde: some of the anti-art measures of the prewar or ‘historical’ avant-garde had become the stuff not only of established taste but also of the spectacle industries. On the other hand, one might take the benign view that both fine art and commercial design benefited from this exchange of forms, and that the effect was to reinforce values that were, in fact, rather traditional – unity of image, immediacy of effect and so on. Evidently this is the way Lichtenstein saw things.
But things are not so benign. As students of Lichtenstein have long pointed out, the values of unity and immediacy were inculcated at Ohio State. In the late 1940s a professor of art there called Hoyt Sherman devised a technique to encourage perceptual discipline that he called the ‘flash lab’: seated in a dark room, students were shown one or more images on a screen for a fraction of a second, and then asked to capture what they had seen (that is, after-images) very quickly on paper. The purpose was to sharpen aptitudes for visual recognition and pictorial concision. Of course, such ‘training’ was hardly alien to Modernist art; one need only think of the ‘New Vision’ advocated by artists such as Moholy-Nagy in photography and film in the 1920s and 1930s. But, as Lobel says, the flash lab ‘pushed the technological instrumentalisation of vision to an extreme’. In part the development of the technique was driven by a desire to mimic the visual skills required of soldiers, especially pilots and gunners, in World War Two, and soon enough in Korea and Vietnam as well. Lichtenstein had trained briefly in anti-aircraft weapons in the Army, and aerial war figures prominently in his comic-strip paintings. In this work he points to a connection between the perceptual aptitudes prepared by Modernist art and those demanded by modern war, a continuum between ‘art vision’ and ‘machine vision’. In some respects art and war encouraged not merely a fast ‘Pop’ eye but a Futurist ‘Killer’ eye, and Lichtenstein brings out the aggressive nature of this way of seeing in his pictures of fighter pilots and the like.
Lichtenstein was adept not only in Modernist styles but also in different modes of seeing and picturing, some of which date back to the Renaissance, if not to antiquity: in specific genres of painting, such as portraiture, landscape and still life, all of which he Lichtensteinised, as well as in general paradigms of painting – painting as stage, as window, as mirror and, later, as abstract surface. In his great essay ‘Other Criteria’ (1972), Leo Steinberg detected a further paradigm, the ‘flat bed picture plane’. In the collage paintings of Rauschenberg and Johns, the picture no longer functions as a vertical frame to look at or through as if onto a natural scene (like a window, a mirror, or indeed an abstract surface), but as a horizontal site where very different images can be brought together textually, a ‘flat documentary surface that tabulates information’. For Steinberg this paradigm signalled a ‘Postmodernist’ break with Modernist models of picturing (he was one of the first critics to use the term cogently), and certainly it influenced Lichtenstein. But Lobel subsumes his work to its rubric too quickly, for Lichtenstein’s is a variant of this model, which is crystallised in his Ben-Day dots: again, it is a model of the picture as a screened image – but also as a sign of a postwar world in which everything seems subject to processing through mechanical reproduction and electronic simulation. This screening bears not merely on the actual making of his art (its commingling of handmade and readymade); it also addresses the mediated look of the world at large, and affects seeing and picturing as such. Lichtenstein often chose comic-strip figures placed in front of viewing screens – gun sights and televisual monitors as well as windscreens and dashboards – as if to ‘compare or correlate the surface of the canvas’ with such surfaces. The effect is to place us in a similar relation: our looking is correlated with the gaze in the painting. Emergent here, I think, is a mode of seeing that has become dominant only in our own age of the computer screen. It isn’t just that all images appear screened, but that our reading and looking alike have become a kind of scanning. That is how we are trained to sweep through information, visual or other: we scan it (and often it scans us, tracking keystrokes, counting website hits and so forth). Lichtenstein seems early on to have sensed this shift, both in semblance and in seeing, which was latent in the comic strip.
Finally, to return to the most important question: where is the ‘subject’ in this new image-world? In the early 1960s the concern with flat surfaces was hardly restricted to painting; an avoidance of emotional depth, a pose of affectless appearance, became a cultural style that Pop advanced. ‘Women draw themselves this way,’ Lichtenstein once remarked. ‘That is what make-up really is.’ He has in mind less the general artificiality of maquillage than the particular flatness of the Pop face (think of Twiggy or Edie Sedgwick), an effect he redoubled in his own representations of women. As Lobel notes, women are often pushed to the surface of his paintings, and sometimes equated with surface tout court, as they are, according to some feminist critics, in classical Hollywood cinema (with which the comics share much: the close-up and the cross-cut, storyboarded narrative and melodramatic action). It is not quite that affect dies in Pop, as is often claimed of Warhol; rather, in Lichtenstein, it is resituated, in a campy move, from the deep emotion of Abstract Expressionism to the surface melodrama of the comics, from Action painting to action scenes of romance and war. It is in such places, Lichtenstein suggests, that the codes of feminine appearance and virile action are learned: no more Great Tradition in literature or art: we are socialised on magazine shelves and through television shows. But his paintings also intimate that if this is so, then these codes have become comical, and maybe affect really isn’t what it used to be.
Paradoxically, as Lichtenstein’s style became more established by the mid-1960s, it appeared more hollowed out of sensibility. He painted a series of giant mediated brushstrokes, which pointed, perhaps too facilely, to the putative impossibility of immediate expression; he also did the pictures after Picasso, Matisse and others. Although, again, he Lichtensteinised the Modernists, they also took over his art, and put its originality further into question, as all pastiche does. Finally, Lichtenstein evoked this partial eclipse of one kind of being in a brilliant series of mirror paintings in the 1970s. All of his signs for light and shadow, reflection and refraction, are here in these mirrors, with the most fleeting of appearances captured through the most fixed of representations, his coded dots and stereotyped lines. But the mirrors are blank, the subject not there: it has become a vampire feeding on other images but unable to project one of its own.