By putting cartoon strips on gallery walls, Roy Lichtenstein helped to create the hip art movement that defined the 1960s. But his works are far from throwaway or simplistic — as a grand new exhibition reveals
When people write textbooks about the US in the 1960s, they invariably illustrate them with Lichtenstein’s pictures. It might be the cute blonde in the mirror anxiously pining for Brad to phone (cue a discussion on the new sexual mores of the age). Or that fighter plane blasting the enemy out of the sky with a humungous WHAAM! (cue a discussion on the impact on the American psyche of Vietnam). Or it might be one of his comic-book-style close-ups of a steaming coffee cup or a spotless all-white American bathroom (cue a discussion on the consumer revolution and the rise of shopping). These are some of the most famous paintings of recent art history. Ask any American in the 1960s if they had heard of Lichtenstein, and most of them would have been able to reply: “Sure. He was the inventor of pop art. He turned comics into art.” What they wouldn’t have heard of is the small European country wedged between Switzerland and Austria.
Lichtenstein was one of America’s biggest artists. Now he is getting the first retrospective in Britain since his death in 1997. He and Andy Warhol are identified together as the creators of pop art, and by elevating the US comic strip to the status of art, by getting it on show in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and into prestigious museums around the world, Lichtenstein did the US a massive cultural favour. It wasn’t just American comics that he was upgrading in the eyes of the global audience. It was America itself.
Lichtenstein credited his son David with the joint creation of the great comic-book style. For most of the 1950s, Lichtenstein senior had been an abstract expressionist, rubbing free-form colours into the canvas so uninterestingly that nobody had noticed him. One day at school, David had a class where the pupils had to discuss what their parents did. One boy’s dad was a policeman. Everyone’s dad was doing something useful. But when David’s turn came, he could only answer that his dad was an abstract expressionist.
The other kids laughed: all that meant was that his dad couldn’t draw. A tearful David came home from school and blurted out what had happened. To prove his pals wrong, Lichtenstein knocked up a perfect likeness of something they would all recognise: Mickey Mouse. To his amazement, Lichtenstein senior found he rather liked it. He went on to do more. And more and more and more. Pop art was born.
There’s a painting from 1962 in the Lichtenstein retrospective that’s about to open in London, which shows a guy and a girl standing by a canvas. “Why, Brad darling, this painting is a masterpiece!” she’s saying. “My, soon you’ll have all of New York clamoring for your work!” This is pretty much what happened. In 1961, just after he painted Mickey for his son, Lichtenstein took a selection of his new comic-strip paintings to New York’s most prestigious art dealer, Leo Castelli, who promptly gave him a show. The show sold out. The fact is that the US was gasping, gagging, for a new art movement that reflected the uncomplicated, go-ahead spirit of the times. In the 1950s, while the smell of world war was still in the air, America needed abstract expressionism for the same sorts of reasons that a depressed man needs to keep the lights down. But once the 1960s started swinging, once cars got faster and chicks got cuter, once the money was there again, and Monroe arrived, and Kennedy, it no longer seemed right or desirable to be churning out angsty abstracts.
But look carefully and you will notice that Lichtenstein’s paintings are never as dumb or uncomplicated as they initially appear. For a start, they are not straight lifts from comics. These carefully created images were assembled from bits and pieces of comic-book vocabulary found in telephone directories, adverts, posters, as well as actual comics, to make a point. It is no accident that Brad and the blue-eyed blonde discussing art and overnight success parallel Lichtenstein’s own story so closely. He presented them this way on purpose, as an ironic take on his own situation.
He realised that we realised that he was Brad. The way he worked was to make drawings first, in which he carefully planned the comic-book action he wanted to paint. Many of the pictures are huge. WHAAM! is the size of a wall. Yet, initially, he hand-painted every one of the tiny dots that successfully mimic the half-tone printing process in his pictures. He soon developed a few useful short cuts for doing this, involving stencils. Later on, he used the famous faux-mechanical dots to produce an image of a hand-painted brush stroke. There’s even a self-portrait in which the artist has replaced his own head with a stencil. Thus his art became more and more complex as it doubled back on itself. However, as Brad well knew, it was always more complex than people imagined.