2013 was a big year for art, first Francis Bacon’s Lucian Freud triptych, and then Warhol’s Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), which sold for $105m (£65.5m). That’s about $30m more than Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I) sold for back in 2007. Well, who would choose a green car over a silver one?
But pop art has always been popular. Especially in poster form, which seems rather apt for an art movement obsessed with reproductions. So ubiquitous are these prints, that they’ve probably crept into your consciousness: they’ll have been 4 feet high, aglow with the paint-box primary colours of your youth, and covered in tiny dots. Sounds like a chicken pox-riddled child? It’s not. More often that not, it’s the work of Roy Lichtenstein.
Roy Fox Lichtenstein was an American pop artist painting from the 1950s right up until his death in 1997. He should not be confused with the tiny landlocked principality between Switzerland and Austria, Liechtenstein (with an extra ‘e’). In 2012 his painting Sleeping Girl, of a sleeping girl, fetched a slightly stratospheric $44.9m (£27.8) at a Sotheby’s auction. Unfortunately for Lichtenstein, this was also the year that a Rothko went for $86.9m (£53.8m) and Munch’s Scream broke the sound barrier by bringing in the highest ever price for a piece of art, $119.9m (£74.3m). Francis Bacon’s much more sombre Lucian Freud triptych is the new record-holder (having sold for $142.4 (£88.8m) in November 2013). But it is still safe to say that Lichtenstein is popular.
BUT WAS POP ART POPULAR?
The long and short of it is yes and no. The American pop art movement sprung up in the late 1950s and early 1960s around a few key figures (Lichtenstein being one, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol being two more). It followed on, or rather broke from the Abstract Expressionists of the post-war period (Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning). Quote Alastair Sooke, who eloquently summarised the situation: ‘Abstract Expressionism had ossified into a cliché.’ Essentially Lichtenstein began to question whether the sweepingly emphatic and emphatically sweeping brushstrokes of Jackson Pollock-ites meant anything anymore. Is that all you needed to paint a masterpiece? A lot of paint and an apron? Instead he and Warhol turned to the images they recognised as colonising the new cultural image bank: mass produced adverts and comic strips. But despite both painting everyday objects in boldly simplistic terms, in the early years at least, they were quite unaware of each other’s work. In fact, the art agent who first signed Lichtenstein (Leo Castelli) refused to also represent Warhol for fear that their work occupied too similar a space.
WHAT DID HE PAINT?
Lichtenstein is probably best known for his use of dots. ‘Benday’ dots, if we’re being pernickety, which we are. The dots were named after Benjamin Day, who implemented the printing technique in 1879 as a way of cheaply reproducing colour images and shading in comic books. Lichtenstein, and the pop art movement that he helped to form, were interested in these methods of mass production. The artist tried a number of methods to produce this overlay of regularly sized and spaced dots: dipping a wire brush in paint, drilling holes into aluminium, commissioning metal sheets from the Beckley Perforating Co., hiring somebody to paint the dots for him… His limited three colour palette and playful use of parody and pastiche further cemented his pop credentials. Note that his pop-palette colour-matched the comic strips and advertisements he used as source images.
SO HE’S A BIT OF A ONE TRICK PONY?
These commercialised images weren’t always what he painted and certainly weren’t all he went on to paint, many of his works are a far cry from the mimicry of Mickey Mouse. The artistically-inclined bluffer will do well to remember the bookends framing Lichtenstein’s impressive oeuvre. He started his career painting Picasso and Paul Klee inspired pieces entitled The Last of the Buffalo and Cherokee Brave. And finished it with his Landscapes in a Chinese Style series. In this latter period the characteristic Benday dots still feature but often they are all that provides colour in a mono- or ‘homochromatic’ landscape. We know, we know. We said he often used a limited palette in his most famous works, but never normally a muted one.
BUT COULDN’T MY FIVE-YEAR-OLD HAVE DONE IT?
Quite possibly. For some his work is at best derivative and at worst plagiaristic. By all means take this line, it is well trodden. Most people power-walking past the exhibition’s 125 paintings will be doing likewise. But, if you’re interested in playing devil’s advocate, throw the verb ‘Lichtensteinize’ into the ring (if you can pronounce it). The word was coined by Carter Radcliffe in order to defend the artist’s copy-cat paintings of Donald Duck and Van Gogh, his rip-offs of comics and classics alike. The art is in the doing. Indeed, unlike Warhol, Lichtenstein always hand painted his work. In reproducing an already existing image he was questioning why we read that line like that, why this shape signals this, and why the completed image conjures up such a definite and predetermined back catalogue of images. The man himself said it best: ‘I am only drawing the depiction of the object.’
In 1964 Life magazine ran an article which asked this damning question of Lichtenstein: ‘Is He the Worst Artist in the US?’ In fact, the piece was playing with the artist’s propensity for pastiche. The heading was itself a nod to an earlier 1949 Life article which had asked almost exactly the opposite question of Pollock: ‘Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?’
DO SAY ‘ I can remember going round to Roy’s for dinner in NY, there weren’t enough tables so he upended a painting onto a trestle! Imagine.’ (Disclaimer: don’t say this if an artist called Allen Jones is in the room. It’s his anecdote.)
DON’T SAY ‘My five-year-old could have painted that.’