Essay on Abstract Expressionism
Roy Lichtenstein was a painter at the centre of one of the most influential moments in the history of contemporary art, the Pop Movement. Among his works are paintings of enlarged brushstrokes, mirrors and comic book panels. He modified and adapted images from other artists work. (He was referred to as a “quotational”painter.) His comic-strip art is the most remembered and talked about in the art world and by the public. He borrowed from popular culture and industry to create his images that, although they were familiar, became his won inventions. He was also a lender and influenced several artists of the ‘80s. Roy Lichtenstein produced during his career a body of work of remarkable visual and conceptual energy using a style that still inspires and influences artists.
By 1961, Roy Lichtenstein became a name known throughout the art world. His transition from Abstract Expressionism to the Pop world was, as he admits, abrupt. He was one of the artists that spearheaded the movement of Pop Art by using industrial products and techniques in his works and by elevating advertising, comic strips and science fiction as suitable subject material in his paintings and sculpture. No person had done any of this previously and it was new to the public. While Andy Warhol, another popular artist of the Pop movement, had taken comic art and changed it to suit his artwork, Lichtenstein was taking other art and technically copying it to the canvas. The art community saw this as “cheating, not doing real art”. (3) His new paintings and style were “programmed or impersonal, reflecting the detachment of American consumer culture at that moment.” (1) It was a new concept that did not work within the confines of western art, which was the norm. It was, in essence, taking an everyday, popular craze, and transplanting it onto canvas.
Lichtenstein had done some works prior to this transition to Pop Art using comic book and cartoon characters as subject matter. They were rendered in an accepted style, that of the New York School. However, he felt this style was evasive and decided, “to do it more like the thing I was copying from.” He took images from cartoons, comics, advertising and from other artists and was able to produce work that was surprisingly inventive and visually clear. His first quotational painting was from Picasso and he did it as early as 1962. Lichtenstein took from other painter’s images but added imagery that he took directly from his own works. His paintings were layered, amusing and complex. A lender as well as a borrower, his word paintings anticipate the work of several ‘80s artists. He forces the onlooker into a world that even though he has borrowed from other painter and popular sources, it has now become his own invention.
Roy Lichtenstein brought the world of Pop to an art world that was familiar with the art of such artists as Mondrian, Ingres and Picasso. What he was doing was new; a monotonous methodical assembly line style of artwork. It had no artistic style and looked as though a computer had done it. He did it perfectly, an exact replica of a comic. However, Lichtenstein explained how his art was NOT exactly like the comics. He explained that “his work had form and unity, and comics were just drawn to fill a page, no thought given to the unity or balance of every frame.”(2)
Paintings and comics relay different messages
One of the things a cartoon does is express violent emotion and passion in a completely mechanical and removed style.
To express this thing in a painterly style would dilute it; the techniques I use are not commercial, they only appear to be commercial, and the ways of seeing and composing and unifying are different and have different ends. (2)
Lichtestein’s comic book works were done in a style all his own; a style that was not previously used. By 1962, Lichtenstein had developed a style of painting that looked more convincingly mechanical than his earlier works. Lichtenstein used the Benday dot method, or screen tinting, as screen printers call it. The process is done by applying colored dots to less than one hundred percent of the paper or canvas, to create an effect of a shaded area. Along with the dots, he used thick black lined contours, which gave the subject the appearance of comic art. He used a kind of mesh or stencil with holes of various sizes through which a flat layer of paint was applied. The variations in the patterns of dots, in terms of their size and spacing was used to describe form, create feelings of mass and space and add a graphic substitute for tone. These Benday dots along with lettering and speech balloons became signatures of his work.
Roy Lichtenstein’s work is like a child of the industrialization period, using popular culture and industry to create “modern” art. It is the relationship between the dots and contours that make his work appear larger than life, like an industrial curiosity. His works are a contact with both the social and working world.
Art influenced by the industrialization of first world countries had been a negative notion, we like to think of industrialization as being despicable….
There is something terribly brittle with it. I suppose I would still prefer to sit under a tree with a picnic basket rather than under a gas pump, but signs and comic strips make interesting subject matter. There are certain things that are useable, forceful and vital about commercial art, we’re using those things. (2)
The industrial world is always around, never noticed it until something happens that affects the world or its inhabitants, things like war, violence, love and so on. One cannot help but wonder if Lichtenstein’s purpose for his work was the subject itself or was he trying to show the question of how the media removes reality from everyday life. Lichtenstein shows that the media takes you out of reality through advertisements and products. They take horrible, unpleasant facts and try to lessen their reality. Lichtenstein takes these things and mechanically paints them in a comic fashion to show reality to a world of pop culture that does not pay attention to the fact that there is a world around them. His art makes us look at the world around us with a sharper vision, “He took elements of pop culture that really were not at all a part of the world of – high world of painting and brought them together.”(4) He took images that an eye might skip over, copied them with great elegance, and made them deserving of attention. He opened up what one saw and thought of as art. Lichtenstein showed that imagery didn’t only have to be about a serious matter like gods, goddesses or tragedies. Things one took for granted, normal things from life could be part of this realm and he shows this in a humorous way. Bringing the real world to the viewer’s eye may be a hard thing to grasp at first, but for that reason alone, it creates an impact. Roy Lichtenstein understood all this, found an excellent source for subject matter, and used it.
Later on in his career, he began to do other types of works. Even though by this time his comic strip images were no longer in evidence, he continued to apply the techniques he had developed in his early pop paintings. In his series of painted or sculptured brushstrokes of the ‘80s, “Lichtenstein created an ironic suggestion of spontaneity.” (5) He froze the essence of the brushstroke in space and time. He began his Mirror paintings in 1969, though taking their cue from the …pictorial shorthand found in advertisements, sales catalogues and other available material, as well as from photographs he took himself of ambiguous reflections – conclusively demonstrate his resourcefulness and pictorial intelligence in painting pictures that are virtually abstract in form and concrete in their subject. They are both replications of real things – mirrors - and paintings of nothing, or at least of nothing more than the imaginary reflection of something unseen and unidentified.(3)
His paintings of mirrors were based on pictures dug from advertisements in the yellow pages or home catalogues. He was focused on the mirror image itself not the focused image in the mirror. This cancelled the relevance of the reflected object. Later paintings in his series also introduced bands of solid color and colored Benday patterns. It was thought to be “elegant and graphically pure and to be about sheer beauty and harmony of line.” (6)
Much of Pop Art relied on found images and had the tendency to caricature other art. This brings a question of originality and invention, an issue that has been alive throughout the history of art. There has always existed a restricted range of choices available to artists at any given time. Whatever we see in this world registers in our memory and will have an effect on the way we picture the world. What was new in Pop, and ultimately in works of Roy Lichtenstein, “was a self-consciousness about style as a matter of choice.” (3) Lichtenstein used a basic aspect of Pop Art: “that of exploring the limits of what can be recognized as art as it shades closer to life itself.” (3) He relied on found images to form his visual models. Paul Richard, an art critic, stated in an interview with Phil Ponce: …if you can imagine how “shocking “ it was to see a comic strip on the wall of Leo Castelli’s Gallery in 1962, it got a lot of attention. But previously there had been things on the wall that were just blank canvasses or active brush strokes. And suddenly he took what was kind of an illegitimate subject for art and painted it in such a way that when you saw the object on the wall, it said, “I am a serious painting” and people believed it. And Lichtenstein was really very easy to see as a classy and elegant and always sort of twinkly and funny image on the wall.(4)
Roy Lichtenstein was a lender and borrower and was successful in bringing the ordinary events of life to the view of his audience in a humorous way in his art. Borrowing from popular culture and industry, he was able to create his own distinct imagery. Although his art encompassed many images, it is the imagery of his comic-strip art that the art world and the average person remembers best. He created a body of work that demands attention. Roy Lichtenstein makes people look in the mirror of human nature. Art for him was a way of looking at the world and forcing one to like what one is familiar with and to form our own judgments about our society. Lichtenstein really “broadened what we saw as and thought of as art.”(4) He developed the concept of comic book panels and industrialization as art. His comics and Benday dots took the world by storm. He opened the viewer’s eyes with new concepts and left the boundaries of modern art.
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