Thursday, February 3, 2011

On Roy Lichtenstein, Pop Art & Comics

Over in ComicAlliance, they had a great post highlighting some of the works of Roy Lichtenstein, the famous Pop Artist, known for his work “inspired” by comic books. His popularity and influence in the pop art scene of the 60’s and onward is probably only rivaled by Andy Warhol. However, many of Lichtenstein’s most famous works are almost line-for-line copies of comic book panels, as this gallery called Deconstructing Lichtenstein demonstrates. This reminded me of a certain experience I had during my trip to London. Hit the jump to see more.

Modern Art

Modern art exhibit at Tate Modern.

While visiting London, my wife and me decided to pay a visit to the Tate Modern, the most popular modern art gallery in the world, and probably one of the biggest. Aside from a few special temporary exhibitions, we walked the whole thing and saw, at least briefly, every section of the gallery. I wasn’t surprised when we didn’t see any piece of comic book art. As a whole, the entire comic book industry has been relegated to the “Not High-Art” category, regardless of whatever artistic merit any comic book might have, by the rest of the art world (slow progress has been made, sure, but not nearly enough).

I even looked around in the Tate’s bookstore, where they had a particularly large selection of all kinds of modern art forms books. Even then, not a single comic book or graphic novel was to be found. There was one book, that almost led me to believe this might not be the case (and I sadly don’t remember the name of it) because it said it was a “graphic novel”, but when I opened it, it was just a text novel, except the text was completely made of “graphics”, like cutouts from a magazine (image a novel-long ransom letter, basically). The only thing partially related to comics I found was in the “How To Draw” section, where they had “How To Draw Comics” and “How To Draw Manga” among other books. However, these have more to do with the craft of drawing, rather that comic books as art in of themselves.

All of this perhaps would not have bothered me so much, if it wasn’t for one thing. You see, comic books were nowhere to be found, but Roy Lichtenstein? Oh, he was there.

Lichtenstein Style

WHAAM! by Roy On Roy Lichtenstein at Tate Modern.

I remember seeing quite a lot of people around this particular piece. And why shouldn’t there have been? It is a recognizable, famous piece of art, by a popular artist, and a distinct style that anyone has seen at one point or the other. It just happens to be almost completely lifted directly from a comic book panel by Irv Novick. Here’s a comparison.

On top, artwork by Irv Novick. Bottom, WHAAM! by Roy Lichstentein.

There are subtle differences, some slight changes in composition, particular elements removed, and the color has notably been altered. However, it remains indubitably a copy of the panel. The problem, of course, is that Lichtenstein’s art became more popular than the one he originally took from, and so most people only see Lichtenstein’s art, not the original comic book art. Someone that has studied or knows Lichtenstein’s art and history will definitely know where it came from, but casual museum goers will not. They will just see the art as it stands there.

Art Spiegelman (author of Maus) has famously gone on to say that “Lichtenstein did no more or less for comics than Andy Warhol did for soup” comparing Lichtenstein’s style with Warhol’s famous painting. I think this is a logical fallacy. No matter how uninformed, anyone that sees Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup” will automatically understand and think “This is a painting of can of Campbell’s soup”. With Lichtenstein’s many drawings, they just think “This is a painting in the style of a comic book”, but at no point will they (again, unless they know beforehand) assume that it IS actually from a comic book, or that the original artist was someone else completely. They will just see Lichtenstein, and nothing else.

How Did it Come To This?

If you are wondering how Lichtenstein came to use his style, then don’t worry, Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey have you covered.

(Click image to see a bigger version)
(Click image to see a bigger version)
(Click image to see a bigger version)

Pages from Comic Book Comics #3 by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey. Fore more info, visit Evil Twin Comics.

So that's the secret origin of Roy Lichtenstein! That's how he created his artwork and how he developed a style that would become synonyms with the pop art movement.

The example provided above at least had some differences between the original panel and Lichtenstein’s final piece. Others, however, are much more egregious in their similarities, to the point that the only difference is the coloring. Take a look at this one for example.

On the left, artwork by John Romita. On the right Crying Girl by Roy Lichtenstein.

The modern equivalent of what Lichtenstein was doing in the 50’s and 60’s would be to run some other artist’s artwork through a Photoshop filter, hang it on a wall, and call it your own art. While there is something to be said for remixing, collages, and other forms of art that incorporate elements from other artists, I think we can all agree that such an argument is thrown out the window when 99% of the artwork is exactly like the original. Doubly so if the almost the entirety of the artist’s portfolio is made up of such works. Artists like Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, John Romita, Russ Heath, and many others can be easily recognizable when looking through a gallery of Lichtenstein works.

He obviously did not feel at all concerned by his continuous use of this technique, as the dozens of image in the gallery of Deconstructing Lichtenstein clearly shows. Lichtenstein helped cement one of the big lies about comic books: that they are not “art”, and therefore the people making them are not “artists”. Lichtenstein was a man with no respect for fellow artists, because he did not consider them peers, just commercial illustrators that put absolutely no talent or effort into those “funny books”. The “drawings” did not become “art” until someone else came along (in this case, Lichtenstein, but it could have easily been someone else) changed a few things, hung it on a canvas, and sold it to another person.

I know what you are thinking. You probably just put down the latest event tie-in and you are thinking “no way what I just read is art!”. And on a bad day, I might even feel compelled to agree. But we must not fall into that same trap that has relegated comic books as the ugly stepchild of the art world and entertainment business. Comic books are always art, regardless of quality. They might be bad art, they might be good art, and they might be good entertainment or bad entertainment. That, however, must be decided by the merits of the comic book, not by the medium in which they are presented.

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Space Jawa said...

When I look at the image you have from Tate Modern, the first thought that comes to my mind is "That's art?" That's not art, that's a joke. How on Earth is a twisted pile of metal art?

I'd dare say that the art in just about ever single comic book I own right now is a better example of art than that.

Matt Duarte said...

@Space Jawa: The funny thing is that it's not metal. Click to see it larger, and you'll be able to tell that it's actually fabric.

See, I don't think it's a very good piece of art, but it is still art. And to be honest, it wasn't even the most nonsensical piece I saw, just the one I happened to have a good photo of.

Naymlap said...

I think you're a bit harsh on Lichtenstein. In it's proper historical context his work is art. I don't think anyone at that time would have argued that comic books were art. It was pulp entertainment. It took a number of ambitious creators and decades to gain a foothold of (much deserved) legitimacy.
Lichenstein and Warhol deserve credit for doing something new and interesting with high art. But the problems with pop art was that it could only sustain itself for so long before it became repetitive. And worse yet, there were people out there who made legitimate pop culture and elevated it to an art form.
You don't have to like pop art(I always thought that Warhol was a bit boring) but I think your assessment of Lichenstein is a bit harsh.

Klep said...

This is fascinating. I had no idea that Lichtenstein was basically a plagiarist.

Robin said...

First of all, plagiarism is when you copy someone's work and claim that it is wholly your own creation. Lichtenstein was not a plagiarist because he never dodged the issue that his paintings were copies. His art, whether you like it or not, was not about putting paint on canvas or making a PICTURE. The fact that he was making a COPY was the artistic concept. He himself said, "The closer my work is to the original, the more threatening and critical the content. However, my work is entirely transformed in that my purpose and perception are entirely different." Perception meaning the fact that it is hung on a wall in a frame and viewed in the context of artistic meaning.

Also, there is nothing illogical about Spiegelman's comments. The art critics and audience that surrounded Lichtenstein knew his paintings were copies, because, the whole point of him making the paintings was to copy. So the comparison to Warhol is quite appropriate (and nicely critical). This quote from 1969 is also appropriate: "Advance information about the concept of art and about an artist’s concepts is necessary to the appreciation and understanding of contemporary art. Any and all of the physical attributes (qualities) of contemporary works, if considered separately and/or specifically, are irrelevant to the art concept. The art concept... must be considered in its whole. To consider a concept’s parts is invariably to consider aspects that are irrelevant to its art condition – or like reading parts of a definition."

Daryll B. said...

Well Robin, if we can rip guys like a certain Uncanny X-Men artist for ripping off other artists (along with using the same poses over and over), we can certainly rip Mr. "Pop Artist" here...

Especially since I have yet to see him in ANY of his interviews credit the original creators of the art...

And whoever to this day and age still refuse to admit that ALL comic books can be considered art, really needs to take a stick out of their nether regions!

(Sry, it early in day for personal spam filter isn't on but my profanity blocker is!) =)

Ivan said...

Lichtenstein = parasite.

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