AOTW #8: Artistic innovator or shameless copycat? A closer look at Roy Lichenstein.
We are currently studying, 'Coast Village', by Roy Lichenstein, so it seems fitting to dedicate this week's Artist of the Week post to the Pop Art heavyweight. BUT, does Lichenstein deserve such prestige? Is Roy Lichenstein the avant-guarde creative the artistic community claims him to be, or just a cheap 'swiper' who has profited from the work of other's?
Pop Art was born in America and the UK during the late 1950's, in the wake of the post-war economic boom. The kitschy brand-heavy art form became synonymous with the economic prosperity and consumerist culture of it's time, now regarded as the Golden Age of Capitalism.
The actual term 'pop art' orginated in the late 1940's, and was first used in the work of art, "I was a Rich Man's Plaything" (1947) , by artist, Eduardo Paolozzi, which incorporates the word "POP" within a montage of a pinup girl, a cherry pie, and other quintessential American symbols from that era.
Pop Art borrows images from popular culture, including comic books and advertisements, and recreates them in a very similar style, but with some sort of ironic twist. This meta art form became very popular in the 60's, and was spearheaded by artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichenstein.
Pop Art gained traction as a modernist movement by using images and subjects from everyday life, and in so doing, disrupting the artistic heirachy by creating a non-elitist, easily accessible art form. Whilst the abstract expressionist movement which preceded it focused on more existential concepts, such as morality or mythology, and was therefore thought of as 'high art', Pop Art rejects this dogma by glorifying commonplace themes and objects, and by extension, elevating popular culture to the level of fine art.
At the time, this modernist movement was seen as very rebellious, however, in today's consumerist world, it could easily be argued that Pop Art is one of the most conformist types of art there is- it was even jokingly referred to, by the FT, as 'capitalist realism'.
Whilst Pop Art uses symbols and objects that are instantly recognizable, it de-contextualizes them by isolating and combining them with other material. This could be seen either as promoting big brands by giving their ads and logos extra artistic cachet, or as a critique of those very things. By lifting these images and distorting their form and mode of delivery, this challenges us to perceive them in a different way, to not see them as powerful metaphors for wealth, or success, or happiness, but rather as just a soup can, as just a bottle of soda.
Andy Warhol, 'Campbell's soup can' (1962), image via MoMA
In terms of its aesthetic value, Pop Art remains one of the most polarizing types of art, with people either loving its weird and wacky style, or finding it crude and lacking in depth. One such Pop Art-hater was art critic, Max Kozloff, who famously stated:
“Art galleries are being invaded by the pin-headed and contemptible style of gum-chewers, bobby-soxers, and worse, delinquents.”
- Max Kozloff, from his article, ’Pop Culture, Meta-physical Disgust, and the New Vulgarian' (1962)
Roy Lichenstein is widely regarded as one of the key influencers of the Pop Art Movement. He is most well known for his cartoon-inspired works from that period, which depict scenes from comic books, enlarged and edited, with bold lines, primary colours and onomatopoeic text.
Roy Lichenstein, 'Whaam!' (1963), image via Tate
Whilst the Art world adore Lichenstein, whose pieces have featured in exhibitions all over the world and frequently sell for millions, when analyzing his body of work, a disappointing trend emerges... From 'Whaam', to 'Drowning Girl', all of Lichenstein's most famous pieces are little more than spruced up versions of cartoon panels, taken from other artists with no permission, or official crediting, or dare I say, financial compensation.
In the comic book world, the act of ripping-off somebody else's work is called 'swiping'. When comic artists are stuck for ideas they sometimes rifle through comics for inspiration, and if they see an image they like, trace it, and replicate it with some alterations. This is a technique Lichenstein appears to have employed again and again.
'Masterpiece' and original cartoon, via 'Deconstructing Roy Lichenstein'
What makes this feel so unjust is the fact that Lichenstein's artwork sells for millions, but the original image was conceived and drawn by somebody else. For example, in a recent sale, 'Masterpiece', depicting a blonde woman driving in a car with a man, and saying, "Why Brad darling, this painting is a MASTERPIECE/ why, soon you'll have the whole of New York clamouring for your work!", was recently bought for $165 million, but guess what? The original drawing was made by comic artist, Ted Galindo. Ever heard of him? No, me neither.
This is true for literally nearly every single piece of work made by Lichenstein during the Sixties, in fact, there is even a whole website dedicated to exposing his cynical plagiarism. Of course, I admire Lichenstein's savvy marketing abilities, and eye for a good scheme. He even seems to foreshadow his own success, or perhaps subliminally trigger it, in his own text- 'Masterpiece' is a good example of this. Yes, Roy, you WILL have the whole of New York clamouring for your work. But is it your masterpiece? Hmm?
'Drowning Woman' and original cartoon, via 'Deconstructing Roy Lichenstein'
Aside from the ethical issues I have with Lichenstein, most of his work depicts hyper-sexualised woman in some sort of state of undress, or crying because of a man. For once, the fact he lifted work from other people could work in his favour- he didn't, after all, design the original, did he? But regardless, he promotes the fetishization and gender-stereotyping of women by using these images in his work, so again, nul points.
Hilariously, even when the Pop Art period was over, and Lichenstein stopped ripping-off comic books, he decided to turn his attention to the great masters instead. From Picasso, to Cezanne, to Van Gogh, Lichenstein trawls through all of them, taking their rich and complex masterpieces, and turning them into tacky one-dimensional prints. Oh, and he sometimes dabbled in actual original art, but.. it's not very good.
Van Gogh, 'Bedroom in Aries', and Lichenstein, 'Bedroom', via Pinterest
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