Tuesday, 27 May 2008



A selection of works from the early 60s by Roy Lichtenstein (1923 – 97) at Gagosian N.Y. inspires a post on a pivotal moment in twentieth century painting. Typically, the gallery’s website offers little in the way of reproductions, happily resources at the Lichtenstein Foundation compensate.

Lichtenstein’s development throughout the 50s essentially matches standard and familiar subjects against strict and abstract treatments, increasingly looks to clichéd iconography balanced against vigorous painterly means. Much like Willem de Kooning’s treatment of Woman or Larry Rivers’ version of Washington Crossing The Delaware, Lichtenstein is drawn to an interruption or incompleteness in treatment, an equivocation to clichés thereby, a composition at once abstract and figurative. Yet what would happen if the subject were as humble or trivial as a comic strip character? Would strenuous painting be mocked or Donald Duck accorded new dignity?

The disparity perhaps ultimately proved too great for the artist, subsequent works turn to more confirmed abstraction. But Lichtenstein was equally dissatisfied there, and out of idle curiosity decided to paint a ‘straight’ version of a single comic strip frame. The result revealed an unsuspected expressive dimension, devoid of painterly ‘interruption’ – the doubts, mistakes and confusions of his 50s approach. Quite the opposite attitudes were now suggested. The ‘straight’ treatment assumes a kind of deadpan reserve, akin to the flâneur’s insolence or hipster’s cool. The isolation of a single frame and dramatic enlargement magnify narrative into amusing oversimplifications, abstract pictorial or formal values by this, yet threaten to cheapen or trivialise these into the bargain.

Coincidentally, Andy Warhol (1928 – 87) arrives at virtually the same style at the same time, but by a slightly different route. He is inspired by the templates and designs given rugged treatment by Jasper Johns. Warhol makes the leap to using stock graphics to much the same ends, to then also abandon painterly treatment for the ‘straight’ copy. Upon seeing Lichtenstein’s work, Warhol shrewdly dropped comic strips and soon addresses print sources more directly through silkscreen, and later, photo-silkscreens.

Such painting now starkly defines itself in relation to styles of printing, looks to highlight crucial differences to the work of multiple instances. Painting does not, of course, immediately look to etchings or woodcuts, or forms of printing usually associated with art. On the contrary, it looks to the commonest and most efficient forms of line illustration. The objective is not so much the popular (despite the label ‘Pop Art’) the revered or preferred, but the pedestrian and mundane, against which to measure overlooked or unexpected qualities of printing through painting, and vice versa.

For even if painting were to do no more than enlarge such prints (which it cannot do, without begging questions of context or framing) the enlargement does not preserve all the qualities of the print, such as the resolution of the inking, or support texture, colour or ageing of support or ink, much less accident, staining, creasing or other typical distress, although conceivably, it might. The ‘straight’ copy is actually very selective. In fact it samples just the lines and colours, perhaps the tonal dot screens, in Lichtenstein’s case, as removed design. And Lichtenstein actually adjusts compositions to heighten this aspect. The absence of these other qualities then point to the supporting canvas in a special way, emphasising its weight, scale or weave, just as the absence of obvious brushwork also exemplify a certain self-effacement or reticence on the part of painting, a literal flatness to its materials, an expressive or metaphorical wryness.

Such work is often still greeted with a mixture of amusement and disappointment, since painting seems at once denuded or debased by the encounter, modest print sources absurdly exalted. But formal values are returned to depiction more generally, rather than just painting, and painting’s role as a work of sole instance, or a one-off, is given new and potent impetus. Unfortunately space here does not permit an explanation of why the resources to painting are greater for being spared the need of strict duplication. However print sampling by painting is further pursued to text (see also Post 67) to layouts (see also Post 61) and obviously to photography (see also Posts 35 and 87) this, generating the sub-style of Photo-realism.

For Lichtenstein the options quickly run to parody of famous works and established styles in painting, to dramatic brushwork, stock treatments of light, reflectance and transparency, to text and obviously the melodrama this allows to comic strips. The focus upon romance is particularly striking, and while his choice of comic strips soon looks old-fashioned, the added distance only strengthens the cliché, the elegantly composed picture and persons that life abandons upon completion, that we uphold out of discretion.

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