Earlier than Roy Lichtenstein Went Pop

One of many many good causes to see the exhibition of Roy Lichtenstein’s pre-Pop-art work, “Roy Lichtenstein: Historical past within the Making, 1948–1960”—which originated on the Colby Faculty Museum of Artwork within the spring and involves the Parrish Artwork Museum, in Water Mill, New York, on August 1st—is that it reminds us of one thing we are inclined to lose sight of once we get caught up within the important enterprise of attempting to situate Pop in an art-history family tree, or to unpack it as social critique, which is that Pop artwork is humorous. It makes you smile. There should not lots of artwork actions you might say that about.

An uncommon factor about American Pop artwork is that (in contrast to British Pop artwork, for instance) the key figures—Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol—had no private relationship with each other, and so they developed their Pop-art kinds independently. One other is that all of them burst onto the scene on the similar second.

The 12 months was 1962. In February, in New York Metropolis, Lichtenstein had his first present of work based mostly on comic-book panels on the Castelli Gallery, and Rosenquist had his first solo present on the Inexperienced Gallery. In July, in Los Angeles, Warhol had his first solo Pop-art present, “32 Campbell’s Soup Cans,” on the Ferus Gallery. In September, “New Portray of Frequent Objects,” a bunch exhibition that included work by Lichtenstein, Warhol, Ed Ruscha, and Wayne Thiebaud, opened on the Pasadena Artwork Museum.

In October, in midtown Manhattan, the gallery proprietor Sidney Janis mounted an extravaganza known as “The New Realists: An Exhibition of Factual Work and Sculpture from France, England, Italy, Sweden, and the USA.” Twenty-nine artists have been represented, together with Lichtenstein, Warhol, Rosenquist, Thiebaud, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Indiana, and George Segal. The present was so huge that Janis had to make use of a second area to suit the whole lot in. In December, “A Symposium on Pop Artwork” was held on the Museum of Fashionable Artwork—and Pop artwork grew to become the title that caught.

Already multinational, because the present at Janis’s gallery demonstrated, Pop artwork shortly went international. By 1964, the 12 months Warhol had his Brillo-box present on the Steady Gallery, in New York, and Robert Rauschenberg—not a Pop artist however, in most respects, shut sufficient—gained the Grand Prize for Portray on the Venice Biennale, Pop artwork was in every single place.

Lichtenstein was a paint-aholic. He was within the studio six hours a day. After he grew to become well-known, he and his spouse spent a while on Captiva, off the Florida coast, however he didn’t wish to go there as a result of he didn’t know what to do with himself on a seashore. So he produced a really giant physique of labor. (He died in 1997.) Nonetheless, his title is synonymous with the comic-book work he made within the early nineteen-sixties—the primary of those, “Look Mickey,” now within the Nationwide Gallery of Artwork, is dated 1961—and, stylistically and thematically, all of the later work grows out of these items. “Roy Lichtenstein: Historical past within the Making” is a glance again down the evolutionary ladder, to the period earlier than the artist crawled onto land.

The pre-Pop Lichtenstein is simply as humorous because the Pop Lichtenstein. His sense of irony runs fairly deep, however he’s at all times playful. It’s placing that, from the very starting, his subject material was not issues or folks however representations of issues or folks. This could be a key function of Pop artwork—and it’s why classifying Pop as an artwork of “frequent objects,” or as “factual” or “realist,” misses the mark. The topic of Pop artwork will not be objects. It’s promoting, journal and newspaper images, packaging, labelling, signage. Pop artists represented the graphic atmosphere in a consumerist world.

For the early-career Lichtenstein, this consisted primarily of illustrations, commercials, and reproductions in textbooks. “It was making a touch upon different folks’s graphic work” is how he defined what he was doing, a few years later, to Calvin Tomkins. His ordinary pre-Pop mode was to breed the unique picture in a modern-art fashion, and his principal fashions appear to have been Pablo Picasso and, particularly, Paul Klee. He used Klee’s palette and his faux-primitivist, two-dimensional fashion of drawing—goofy faces, lumpy our bodies, simplified types.

A notable early instance is “Washington Crossing the Delaware II,” made in 1951, a model (Lichtenstein made two of them) of Emanuel Leutze’s well-known portray as if it have been redrawn by a primary grader. (It’s in all probability not a coincidence that Leutze’s is dated 1851, and Lichtenstein’s was painted a century later. He appears to have loved that form of factor.)

“Washington Crossing the Delaware II,” from 1951.Artwork work © Property of Roy Lichtenstein / Courtesy Roy Lichtenstein Basis Assortment

Actually, virtually the entire of Lichtenstein’s pre-Pop œuvre consists of boyish renderings of boyish enthusiasms: battle scenes, mechanical gadgets, cowboys and Indians, medieval knights, pilots, deep-sea divers (in all probability impressed by journal protection of the scuba diver Jacques Cousteau). There’s a temporary stretch of pure abstraction late within the decade, though that work, too, looks like a pastiche or an imitation of summary portray. By 1958, you begin seeing the face of Mickey Mouse, and also you sense that landfall is close to.

What reworked Lichtenstein’s artwork into Pop—his early, sketched-in Mickey right into a recognizable primary-color comic-book Mickey—was the identical factor that reworked Warhol’s: the adoption of a hard-edge fashion. Lichtenstein removed the painterly patina that had been virtually a sine qua non of avant-garde artwork for the reason that Summary Expressionists of the late nineteen-forties. Even Jasper Johns’s “American Flag,” first displayed in 1958, has a painterly patina. Lichtenstein made his drawing look mechanical fairly than freehand. The stylistic shift was so placing that, within the early days, Pop artwork was generally known as the hard-edge faculty.

Within the case of the comic-book pictures, the transformational machine was not, because it was within the pre-Pop work, reproducing them in a modern-art idiom. It was reproducing them in line with the compositional components of effective artwork. Lichtenstein was not simply copying the originals—a typical misunderstanding. His pictures are all derived from precise comic-book artwork, however he altered them, unified their components, made them formally extra like artwork works. “I take a cliché and attempt to arrange its types to make it monumental,” he defined to Life journal, in 1964, for a chunk titled “Is He the Worst Artist in America?” “The distinction is usually not nice, however it’s essential.”

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