Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Rethinking Rascally Roy (Lichtenstein, not Thomas)

Around the time Roy Lichtenstein starting painting his canvases influenced by comic book panels, editor Stan Lee was giving everyone at Marvel Comics a nickname to make the company appear more homey. Since Lichtenstein usually appropriated images from DC Comics, he probably wouldn't have qualified for one, but if he did, he probably should have gotten the 'Rascally' that eventually settled on writer Roy Thomas. Lichtenstein seems to have spent his entire career engaging with other art forms, appropriating them, making sport of them, but also in some odd way, respecting them.

The National Gallery of Art is mounting a large career-spanning retrospective that begins with one of Lichtenstein's first comic-derived images - the Gallery's Look Mickey (1961). At the press preview, curators kept noting that the original image is from Donald Duck Lost and Found, a Little Golden Book from 1960, and not a comic book, but honestly that's a difference that makes no difference. Lichtenstein had come up with a hook, and a look, and together these let him break into the big time. To our eyes, familiar with almost forty years of later works, Look Mickey looks crude. The dots that texture Mickey's head and Donald's eyes are handpainted, and not made by forcing paint through a metal screen with a toothbrush as he would later turn to. The underlying pencil can be seen - something almost inconceivable in his work of just a few years later. Lichtenstein worked by doing a freehand drawing, projecting that piece onto a larger canvas and drawing it there, and then painting that. Examine this painting closely so you're prepared to see his technique evolve and tighten up as he finds his groove.

The Gallery owns 375 pieces of Lichtenstein's art -- one of the largest collections -- and this exhibit has 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures in it. They've borrowed from other museums and the show will travel to England and France after being here in DC. For comics and cartoon fans, after Look Mickey you can skip the rest of the Early Pop Art gallery, and go view the black & white drawing Alka Seltzer (1966) in the next room. To this reviewer, Jack Kirby's influence appears obvious -- and doesn't appear in the rest of the Black and White series. Kirby's Marvel Comics work had settled into its mature phase with the heavy black lines and over the top action that would typify his work. Lichtenstein's drawing of this banal subject produces a glass of Alka Seltzer that would look at home in the hands of Dr. Doom, if he ever stopped trying to conquer the world for a few minutes and looked after himself.

Instead of Marvel Comics, Lichtenstein turned to DC Comics for works in his Romance and War series. 1962's Masterpiece is the first in his Romance series, and he works in a joke about his new status as a darling of the art world. Contrast this work with Ohhh... Alright..., from 1964, and you can see his quoting of the comics medium becoming surer and cleaner, especially after he begins using his technique of painting through metal screens. Unfortunately, looking at the images here produces one of the main problems with Lichtenstein's comic-influenced art. When they are reproduced in a book (or blog) they become the same size as the comic they're taken from and this gives the viewer a false impression. These pieces are big, and the scaling-up while removing extraneous detail, and repositioning graphic elements gives them a... grandeur that insists that you see them in person.

Lichtenstein probably would have been a competent, if uninspiring comic book artist (think Don Heck) -- the original sketch for Ohhh... Alright... is in the exhibit and shows he could have done that, but the path he chose was probably better for all concerned. Bart Beaty's Comics Versus Art (University of Toronto Press, 2012) has a good chapter about the angst that Lichtenstein's work inspires in comic book readers - an angst I share. Lichtenstein was working from then-current comic books like Girls' Romances and Secret Hearts, and titling his works with an attribution such as Whaam! (after Novick)  or Whaam! ( All American Men of War #89) rather than simply Whaam! would have been a gesture of respect to other artists who, although working as commercial illustrators in comic books, still considered what they were doing to be art.

His decision not to do this continues to lead to headlines such as 2011's Connecting the Dots Between the Record $43 Million Lichtenstein and the $431 Comic Strip It Was Copied From, and articles that start "Imagine you drew a comic book for a nominal fee and a world-famous artist recreated in paint a panel from that work and sold it for millions of dollars without you receiving any credit or royalties." Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein is an entire website devoted to tracking the original comic panels that Lichtenstein repurposed / appropriated for his paintings.

His Brushstrokes series began with Brushstrokes (1965), which the exhibit explains came from "The Painting," Strange Suspense Stories #72 (Charlton Comics, October 1964) -- the NGA reproduces the panel, but neglects to mention that the original artwork is by Dick Giordano. This was among his last of this type of work. Instead he began painting large fake brushstrokes over his now trademark dots, or painting the explosions without any intervening war comic scene. The exhibit wall text for Whaam! suggests a reason, quoting him reflecting "If you go through [comic books], you'll find that there are very few frames that... would be useful to you. Most of them are in transition, they don't really sum anything up and it's the ones that sum up the idea that I like best."

Lichenstein then moved completely away from the comics-influenced paintings to do similar paintings with other fine art as the subject, such as a faux woodcut of a Washington by Gilbert Stuart. Picasso and Cezanne and the Laocoon were Lichtensteinized. He painted faux architectural elements and faux mirrors, and did sculptures and paintings quoting art deco. He made landscapes out of dots. All of these can be seen in the show.

But in the 1990s and towards the end of his career, Lichtenstein returned to comic book art and looked back at the romance comic books he had painted from 30 years earlier -- this time, he just left off the clothing for his Nudes series. Without their captions or word balloons, and with a more radical use of dots, these paintings seem further removed from their sources than his earlier works.

A lot has been written on Lichtenstein, and I'm obviously not an expert on his work, but I do think that his 1978 Self-Portrait, in which he depicts himself as a mirror hovering above an empty shirt -- while witty -- may very well also depict a deeper ambivalence about his career.

The exhibit Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective runs from October 14, 2012–January 13, 2013 at the National Gallery of Art. I can honestly recommend it to anyone interested in comic art who is willing to think about art, illustration, comics and where they all crash together. I would have preferred to see more of the original source material in the show -- only two comics panels are reproduced in the exhibit text  -- and buying a 1960s DC romance comic or two wouldn't bust anyone's budget. An excellent catalog by curators James Rondeau and Sheena Wagstaff is available, and the Gallery has several events planned including ones at local restaurants Busboys and Poets and Ben's Chili Bowl.

UPDATE: Here's some pages that Lichtenstein used from Charlton and DC Comics (thanks to Prof. Witek)-


Secret Hearts #83, Nov. 1962

All-American Men of War #90

All-American Men of War #89


Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein said...

The Artists Roy Lichtenstein Copied
Jack Abel
Tony Abruzzo
Ross Andru
Martin Branner
Milt Caniff
Hy Eisman
Myron Fass
Dick Giordano
Jerry Grandenetti
Russ Heath
Gil Kane
Jack Kirby
Joe Kubert
Irv Novick
William Overgard
Arthur Peddy
Bruno Premiani
John Romita
Bud Sagendorf
Mike Sekowsky
George Tuska

Mike Rhode said...

Thanks for the note, David. You don't have a list of the specific comic books and strips on your site, do you?

Mike Rhode said...

Here's another article on a Lichtenstein exhibit that I recommend: http://hoodedutilitarian.com/2012/06/the-origin-of-roy-lichtenstein/