Pop Eye

Hal Foster

  • Image Duplicator: Roy Lichtenstein and the Emergence of Pop Art by Michael Lobel
    Yale, 196 pp, £35.00, March 2002, ISBN 0 300 08762 4

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.

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