Sunday, 4 February 2007

Lichtenstein

I just noticed Craig Yoe plugging (Jan 30) his recent Arf Museum book from July last. I picked it up at the San Diego Con and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's very much a grab bag of unrelated bits and pieces corresponding to the theme of 'The unholy marriage of art and comics'. This , the second issue consists of such delights as a dozen full page color pieces of the Yellow Kid by Outcault, made for a series of lightweight book collections of the kid that never materialized, pages by Art Young, victorian cartoonist Charles Bennett, a dozen pages, mostly in color, tracing the iconography of King Kong holding Faye Wray aloft back through a US World War 1 enlistment poster (Destroy the mad Brute!), via a Homer Davenport cartoon against 'Crokerism', to a sculpture by the French artist Emmanuel Fremiet. Now that's scholarship! And it's all done with an outrageous sense of fun.

He shows a photo of Roy Lichtenstein speaking at the National Cartoonists Society in 1964, as a follow up to the Mort Walker two pager in Arf which tells the anecdote of how Mort invited the painter along to ambush him about stealing the work of hard working comics guys. Something strikes me as bogus about this. I'm suspecting that Mort knows who the image was pinched from because it's been well analysed and discussed in the intervening years. Would Mort Walker have been familiar at the time with styles of assorted guys who were filling romance comic books, in the late '50s, completely anonymously. And could he have recognized a personal style after it had been restyled by Lichtenstein, unless he was familiar with the actual individual issues of the comic books in question. I remember Lew Schwartz telling me that he never told his colleagues in the Cartoonists Society that he was ghosting Batman for a number of years, presumably because it wasn't something to be boasted about. The only currency of value in the cartooning world in those days was a syndicated strip. Very few comic book artists signed their work, even when they were allowed to do so. So Walker's piece smacks of a retroactive re-evalauation.

Was Alex Beam at the Boston Globe, on oct 18 last, in Lichtenstein: creator or copycat?, also writing baloney just for effect or was he locked up in a dark room during his formative years:
"Color me naive, but I never thought Lichtenstein's work was a direct copy of scenes from comic books. I assumed that he stylized certain scenes suggested by the comic vernacular of the 1950s and 1960s. 'He tried to make it seem as though he was making major compositional changes in his work, but he wasn't,' says (David) Barsalou, who teaches at the High School of Commerce in Springfield. 'The critics are of one mind that he made major changes, but if you look at the work , he copied them almost verbatim. Only a few were original.'
'Barsalou is boring to us,' comments Jack Cowart, executive director of the Lichtenstein Foundation. He contests the notion that Lichtenstein was a mere copyist: 'Roy's work was a wonderment of the graphic formulae and the codification of sentiment that had been worked out by others. Barsalou's thesis notwithstanding, the panels were changed in scale, color, treatment, and in their implications. There is no exact copy'."


I've always presumed DC comics were pragmatic enough at the time, pleased that the images were coming mostly from their books. The artists had already sold all the rights, so I don't know why they would be whingeing, if indeed they were. No, the complaints all come from moral indignation of many years after the events. I have no time for it. To borrow a few lines from Charles Rosen, writer on classical music, "To strike a strong moral attitude toward an historical phase of art leads to ludicrous misunderstanding... and is pardonable only when we are dealing with contemporary phenomena; when we have a stake in the next choice that will be made, when our attitude is a hope or an anxiety, not self indulgence masking as principle."

David Barsalou, whose web site instigated the Globe piece, has amassed 85 pairings of Lichtenstein originals with their comic book panel 'sources'.
Showing them side by side like this is useful for an understanding of the iconographic connections, but it does miss the essence of the exercise, that is that Lichtenstein took a tiny picture, smaller than the palm of the hand, printed in four color inks on newsprint and blew it up to the conventional size at which 'art' is made and exhibited and finished it in paint on canvas. In theory it was like painting a view of a building, or a vase. He worked through a long series of the same kind of thing before applying the particular treatments he had devised, such as the mechanical dots, to other kinds of images, ultimately including abstract images as in the brushstroke series. I find his whole project quite astonishing and invigorating. It was good for art. Hell, it was even good for the comic book medium, setting a precedent for it to be taken seriously.
"Given the predominance of visual media, both postmodern art and postmodern culture gravitate towards visual forms, as in the "cartoons" of Roy Lichtenstein. A good example of this, and of the breakdown between "high" and "low" forms, is Art Spiegelman's Maus, a Pulitzer-prize-winning rendition of Vladek Spiegelman's experiences in the Holocaust, which Art (his son) chooses to present through the medium of comics or what is now commonly referred to as the "graphic novel."

Lichtenstein stands on the doorstep of postmodernism, within which philosophy the 'real' has slipped out of our grasp and pictures will thereafter be about pictures and stories about stories. Walker's story belongs among the tall tales of an older generation, when people still believed in the real, and in a kind of understood reality behind the joy of telling stories in a big way.
Lew Schwartz told me a great anecdote about the late Bill Mauldin, and he also told it to Jon Cooke and it appeared in his Comic book Artist magazine, because yarns were designed for a long life and a lot of use, like everything else, in those days. About how Bill was just back from the war in Europe, and it was young Lew's first time at the National Cartoonist Society, and Bill gave him a lift back to the Prince George Hotel where Lew was staying for the night, and he was completely drunk and tried to drive his jeep (which the army had let him keep, for his exceptional services), through the revolving doors of this grand old building. Apparently Bill had been drowning his sorrows all day because his wife had just told him she was leaving him for another guy, and he had been down to the publishers office that afternoon and ripped the dedication page out of two thousand copies of his new book.
It was great yarn, told slowly, and obviously Bill didn't literally destroy two thousand copies of his book. But one gets the meaning and enjoys the story-telling. A couple of years back Lew's contemporary Jerry Robinson started in on a long anecdote onstage at the Eisner awards at San Diego. I immediately cringed in horror, thinking 'oh no, Jerry, please don't. I love ya and I want to hear it, but that kind of thing just doesn't go down any more..." it was agonizing to see the audience become restless.

Anyway, one last irony ( I write it smiling at life's daftness, without a hint of indignation). The other voice in the above argument is the Lichtenstein Foundation. On the opening page of their site, an excellent document on the artist and his life, it says: "The contents of this site are for personal and/or educational use only. Neither text nor photographs may be reproduced in any form without the permission of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation."... and then you have to click the 'I agree' button.

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29 Comments:

Blogger Johnny Walker said...

Nice article! I agree with what you say, but I'm not sure if Lichtenstein's use of existing artwork really made people take the comic medium "seriously", in much the same way that I don't think that Andy Warhol made people take the Campbell's soup label seriously.

Hmmm. Actually, the more I think about it, although I don't think Lichtenstein was trying to make people take comics seriously, by making people look at something so "trashy" close-up, he may well have subconsciously made them think about what comics actually were.

Anyways, Rick Veitch pokes fun at the story of Lichtenstein/Pop Art in his "Greyshirt: Indigo Sunset" book. In it, there's a pop-artist in it who ultimately meets his demise at the hands of the original comic book artist that he "stole" from. It's pretty funny. (I'm sure it captures a certain sense of frustration!) Actually the whole thing is great fun and I recommend it if you've not already read it!

Great article though, I enjoyed it a lot!

4 February 2007 8:47:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Johnny Walker said...

Just been looking through that excellent "Deconstructing Lichtenstein" link. It seems to me that Lichtenstein did a great job of capturing certain "moments" that said something else when they were taken out of context, especially the woman's view of relationships.

There's some awful ones that don't say anything interesting though, and I was also shocked to note that the original comics were often, in my opinion, drawn a LOT better than Liechtenstein's copies! Frequently the faces look a lot more natural, and draw you in more, in their original incarnations!

The ones which Lichtenstein seems to have "added" to are the "pow" ones. (The explosions, etc.) Saying that, being able to see the two versions side-by-side really allows you to appreciate what Lichtenstein did: Cleverly pulling out certain frames, sometimes cropping them, that created a certain atmosphere. A certain reflection of a male-dominated society. The crying unhappy women and the men who see themselves as heroes and fighter pilots.

Of course it's not all like that, there's just certain "pow" moments that he captures well, too. There's also some complete crap, but for me, he's at his most potent when he seems to be saying something about male and female relationships.

4 February 2007 9:11:00 am GMT-5  
Anonymous John Coulthart said...

Rian Hughes wrote a great polemic about this (increasing) trend in the art world here:

http://www.eyemagazine.com/opinion.php?id=5&oid=9

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to paint some copies of Roy Lichtenstein pictures.

4 February 2007 10:56:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Damien said...

Roy Lichtenstein was the first artist whose work I got to really study, up close. There was a showing at the National Gallery, in DC, when I was a kid, and I've loved his work, since then.

I have to wonder, about post-modernism, if this natural progression, this totally necessary understanding of humanity's understanding and perceived place within the universe, is symptomatic, or causal. If it's symptomatic, then how to we apprehend a sense of the "Real" again? If it's causal, can it be reveresed, at least enough so that we don't slide into some weirdly farcical doom?

And wasn't that Two ironies, or at least one necessary irony, and one contingent?

Bah. I ramble.

4 February 2007 11:03:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Andrew said...

I always viewed postmodernism as a kind of compost heap, breaking down all of the stuff that came before so that something better could come afterwards.

Better than the postmodernist stuff anyway.

I love your summing up postmodernism as "pictures will thereafter be about pictures and stories about stories." I am reticent to mention it, but I once wrote a paper arguing that From Hell represented a tidy argument against postmodernism, though I have no idea if you two were thinking about that at the time.

4 February 2007 4:32:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Andrew J said...

Oops, that was me. I have no idea why blogger has me down as two mes.

4 February 2007 4:33:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

Johnny
in 1968 there was an exhibition of comics at the Louvre, with lots of panels by caniff etc, blown up to canvas size. Horn and Couperie put together the book that went with it and you can still find that. I posit that this is an example of comics being taken seriously on the heels of the Pop art movement.
and yes, I'd agree that wasn't Lichtenstein's purpose. he was just looking at junk culture and questioning what's the difference between high and low. and as for the comics he picked, he was deliberately picking the lowest, not caniff or Rip Kirby or any 'name' stuff.
and as to which was 'drawn better', i think that's beside the point. There are levels of art. at a certain level it's about how well made the thing is, at a higher level it's about ideas, and the dialogue a society is having with itself. And at that level it is quite irrelevant to talk about skill i think. But yes, a lot of the anonymous stuff is probably more skilful.
Which of picasso's paintings were more skilful, his student work or his cubist works, and which were more important?

Damien
well, the postmodern philosophy and ideas is just a way of analysing and codifying what has already happened and continues to happen. And one can be coginzant of the ideas before knowing that somebody has put a name to it all. Of course once the codifying begins, then much of the new thing is inevitably done self-consciously, by which time some newer thing has started to sneak in half noticed.
Once all of the world's precious beliefs have had their 'reality' questioned and undermined it's difficult to go back, except in the way the world descended into the dark ages and forgot all the things it had learned. (and who's to say it won't, with the way they're behing in the middle east?

as for from hell, it is very much of its era. It analyses older stories. It even debunks all the theories, including its own. The reality it spent five hundred pages setting up is then blatantly undermined. that Dance of the Gull catchers, no?
It's the climate of our times. No more or less.

4 February 2007 9:33:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

ps
john, thanks for the link. am checking it now

4 February 2007 9:35:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

read it.

My own conclusion to it all is that the idea of painting being some kind of higher cultural thing is in our day a total absurdity. After Pop Art on it cannot be so. And the idea that there is an art establishment which knows anything about these matters is another reality that has gone south. I believe that the dialogue of our world is being written elsewhere. In fact i would say that the notion that it is taking place in a 'where' or place or field pr milieu is also to be questioned.

4 February 2007 9:45:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4 February 2007 10:53:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4 February 2007 11:22:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

the art-buying public

Just thought of dr Zoidberg, when he came into money, he immediately went to a gallery and said "i'd like to buy an art"
(i may not have remembered that exactly right)

4 February 2007 11:35:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Leigh said...

This Lawrence Alloway comment from Johnny's link is revealing: "Future research will no doubt come up with the names of the people who drew some of Lichtenstein’s originals, but so what? He was not engaged in mutual collaboration but acts of annexation."

There was a time when a respected entity was considered perfectly within its rights to commandeer a foreign, "primitive" entity and either seize its assets or remake that entity in its own image, in the name of "ennobling" the "savage." The White Man's Burden and all that. Nowadays such imperialism is condemned, and we emphasize indigenous sovereignty. I'm not surprised that people are seeing elitism and exploitation in Lichtenstein's work; I'm sort of surprised that it took this long.

Another metaphor: Lichtenstein as P.T. Barnum, putting the freaks and primitives on display for the amusement of the good white folks? Hmmm.

I'm writing a thesis this year on the translation of Greek poetry, so I'm quite interested in this topic of art, appropriation, and imperialism. In many respects I think a concern for faithfulness and authenticity has crippled classical translation for the last fifty years, and it's time for the pendulum to swing back...

5 February 2007 12:10:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

This sounds to me like what Charles Rosen was warning against in the quote. It's easy to express that high moral attitude now, after comic book artists have fought for their rights over many years, and in the field of music the owners of songs have asserted their rights, and the credit lines at the ends of movies go on for ten minutes.
by all means establish legislation that protects intellectual property, but it (all intellectual property... there was a time remember when the concept didn't exist, and in the intervening time it advanced through shades of grey) ... only came to be regarded as such after many years of debate, and it could also be argued that 'High Art's recognition of comics as art, per se (hi, Percy)... contributed to the good. Lichtenstein always asserted that comic book art was art. That's all history. To make heroes and villains out of it is like comic book morality.

To do it now is unnacceptable (see the Hughes article linked above) because the goal posts have been shifted, but you can't go retroactively applying that.

5 February 2007 12:34:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

...retroactively applying anything inevtably leads to misinterpretation, which is why i won't hear of the term 'comics' being applied back through history. simply because it leads to people talking gibberish. (I've coverd that subject elsewhere... an issue of the comics Journal from 2004 for instance, where i gave a specific example))

5 February 2007 12:37:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Leigh said...

Fair enough point about moving the goalposts; I've certainly argued many times against fellow students who e.g. attack Plato for misogyny. I think Rosen's argument is less certain in this instance because it's still recent (R.L. is less than 10 years dead, and some of the original artists are still alive), but I won't argue the point.

But surely it's possible to recognize the presence of ideological trends in RL's work without becoming emotionally invested in the matter? And surely it's worthwhile to do so?

And surely (Shirley?) the hypocrisy of this would be evident in any decade.

5 February 2007 1:29:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

Shirley, the hypocrisy. yes. Indeed i ended my piece with an 'irony' from the same forge.

I was thinking about another moving of goal posts. Today you can't play another person's song in a public performance without dutifully coughing up. But a hundred years ago the income was all derived from sheet music so the owner of the song wanted it to be publically performed by as many stars as possible so ordinary people would want to play it at home on the piano. Nowadays nobody buys sheet music, so the whole game has to work differently. Micropayments for every performance.

With RL it's really about quotation. He's lifting one panel out of a whole comic and 'performing' it in a completely different way. It might be like the London Philharmonic doing an disc of adaptations of popular tunes in new arrangements. Okay , so they pay the royalty. but it wasn't always so.

As for crediting the original artist. Don't forget that the owner of the art, DC comics mostly, didn't give credit either. Another example of the goal posts moving. Does that change the value of the panel. We probably can't know because we can't go back to 1959 (or whenever he made the first one).

There's evidence that William Overgard was pissed, but he was a syndicated strip artist who signed all his work. But this seems terribly small minded to me. I'm going to dig up a quote and get back to you.....

5 February 2007 1:49:00 am GMT-5  
Anonymous John Coulthart said...

>>There was a time when a respected entity was considered perfectly within its rights to commandeer a foreign, "primitive" entity and either seize its assets or remake that entity in its own image, in the name of "ennobling" the "savage."

That argument would seem more applicable to the case of Glenn Brown (cited in the linked Rian Hughes piece), a painter who got into trouble for making exact copies of science fiction book cover illustrations. Lichtenstein at least was altering his raw material; the trend recently has been to simply put quotes around the annexed artefact, give it a new title then attach the new artist's name to it. Jeff Koons was sued for doing this with a postcard picture; Glenn Brown had to settle out of court with one of the artists. I get increasingly tired of seeing this in the current art world not least because of the way that world likes to fence its activities away from the "commercial" sphere but is as commercial as any other medium.

The Glenn Brown case seems to be down to critic Robert Hughes' (no relation to Rian) assertion that there are now too many people around calling themselves artists; it's a highly competitive world and all need to find a niche that distinguishes their work from all the other thousands who left art school that year. Appropriation is an easy solution. As Hughes (Robert) says: "More people left American art schools in the 1980s than there were people living in Florence during the Renaissance." (The Shock of the New.)

BTW, I have a nice book--A History of the Comic Strip--produced in 1968 as a result of that Louvre exhibition. Lots of stuff in it relevant to this discussion, not least Milton Caniff's intro saying "How ever did we get in the Louvre?"

5 February 2007 8:14:00 am GMT-5  
Anonymous John Coulthart said...

And on a completely unrelated note, I always trace the Mighty Kong and Anne Darrow back at least to Emmanuel Frémiet's "Gorilla carrying off a Woman" of 1887.

http://www.artrenewal.org/asp/database/image.asp?id=1935

5 February 2007 9:59:00 am GMT-5  
Anonymous Jeet Heer said...

A very thoughtful post, generating much interesting commentary.

On the whole, I agree that Lichtenstein was good for comics. by showing how iconically potent certain images could be, even if done by anonymous artist in despised pulp comics, Lichtenstein mad it possible for people to see comics as art.

But Lichtenstein wasn't the only factor involved. If we look back to the 1960s, we see that there were multiple factors involved in giving comics greater cultural currency. While Lichtenstein was doing is thing, collectors and fans like Jules Feiffer and Woody Gelman were publishing the fist real reprints of old comics; scholars like Umberto Eco and Marshall McLuhan were turning their attention to comics as a visual artform; young cartoonists like Crumb and Kim Deitch were doing work based on the idea that comics were a form of self expression, not just a commerical medium.

So, Lichtenstein helped. But he wasn't alone -- his work was part of a much larger cultural mood.

5 February 2007 11:10:00 am GMT-5  
Anonymous mikel midnight said...

I've had the same ambivalence about Lichtenstein since I was in my early 20's (so, two decades now).

I like his work. I think it's an interesting use of the comics form, and it's often funnier and more interesting (if not better drawn) than the originals.

However, I detested the idea surrounding his work that it was 'real' art but the source material was akin to found objects.

5 February 2007 1:00:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Johnny Walker said...

>> Which of picasso's paintings were more skilful, his student work or his cubist works, and which were more important?

Good point! I've never really thought as skill as being unimportant, but of course you are absolutely right: The most important art is about ideas.

I'm still surprised that the anonymous artists had more technical skill than Lichtenstein, but God knows why. It's good to be reminded about what is _actually_ important about art. Thanks.

5 February 2007 5:01:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger HemlockMan said...

Didn't know about the Mort Walker/Lichtenstein bit. Yeah, that's pretty low.

Some years back I was in the home of a certain comic book artist who got down this enormous German tome from the late 1800s. He begins to show me a series of cartoons in them. And my eyes bug out.

"Goddamn! Gahan Wilson can't be old enough to have drawn these!! Fuck! How old is he?" These were my first thoughts.

Then, my next thought was:

"Goddamn! Gahan Wilson fucking filched his entire fucking career from some German cartoonist I've never even fucking heard of!" And I voiced that thought just so.

And the comic book artist who had this enormous German tome from the late 1800s filled with artwork from which Gahan Wilson had filched his entire style smiled warmly and nodded his head, and said nothing. Nothing.

5 February 2007 9:33:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Mercury Studio said...

"Anyways, Rick Veitch pokes fun at the story of Lichtenstein/Pop Art in his "Greyshirt: Indigo Sunset" book. In it, there's a pop-artist in it who ultimately meets his demise at the hands of the original comic book artist that he "stole" from. It's pretty funny."

And to complete the fun, the story was drawn by Russ Heath, the artist of several panels that Lichtenstein copied. Many of the paintings depicted in the story by Heath are drawn from RL's paintings based on Heath's comics from 40 years ago.

-Lieber

5 February 2007 10:50:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Johnny Walker said...

Well I didn't know that! Wow! Thanks for telling me, what a brilliant piece of trivia!

7 February 2007 12:01:00 am GMT-5  
Anonymous James said...

http://www.artrenewal.org/asp/database/image.asp?id=1935

That's a brilliantly loony piece of work. Not much subtext there, eh? I love the care with which he sculpted her mighty breasts squashed against the gorilla's side... while his other hand was obviously in his pants.

7 February 2007 5:30:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

and a more dramatically lit photo than the one Craig Yoe had access to.

belated thanks for the link, John

Eddie

7 February 2007 5:51:00 am GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lichtenstein should be vilified for his blatant theft of artistic works that were not his own, period. There is never an excuse for using someone else's artwork and calling it your own. As an artist myself this is the lowest you can get. It may not matter to the general public but it does to the person creating the original art. The illustrators that created the so-called low art form of comic art were ten times better than the hack we're are talking about. This is why his childish imitations are not even an improvement on the original. Try what he did today and find yourself in court tomorrow. There is no reasonable excuse.

29 January 2009 3:47:00 pm GMT-5  
Anonymous David Marshall said...

Accentuating everything wrong with Gold and Silver age comics (huge color dots, off-registration, sloppy drafting) is not a compliment, tribute or honor. Copycatting from a single source is not "transformative art". Roy Lichtenstein's a thief, galleries are street vendors and auctioneers are pawn shops.

2 March 2012 10:42:00 pm GMT-5  

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