One of many many good causes to see the exhibition of Roy Lichtenstein’s pre-Pop-art work, “Roy Lichtenstein: Historical past within the Making, 1948–1960”—which originated on the Colby School Museum of Artwork within the spring and involves the Parrish Artwork Museum, in Water Mill, New York, on August 1st—is that it reminds us of one thing we are inclined to lose sight of once we get caught up within the crucial enterprise of making an attempt to situate Pop in an art-history family tree, or to unpack it as social critique, which is that Pop artwork is humorous. It makes you smile. There aren’t numerous artwork actions you could possibly say that about.
An uncommon factor about American Pop artwork is that (in contrast to British Pop artwork, for instance) the foremost figures—Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol—had no private relationship with each other, they usually developed their Pop-art kinds independently. One other is that all of them burst onto the scene on the identical second.
The yr was 1962. In February, in New York Metropolis, Lichtenstein had his first present of work primarily based on comic-book panels on the Castelli Gallery, and Rosenquist had his first solo present on the Inexperienced Gallery. In July, in Los Angeles, Warhol had his first solo Pop-art present, “32 Campbell’s Soup Cans,” on the Ferus Gallery. In September, “New Portray of Frequent Objects,” a gaggle exhibition that included work by Lichtenstein, Warhol, Ed Ruscha, and Wayne Thiebaud, opened on the Pasadena Artwork Museum.
In October, in midtown Manhattan, the gallery proprietor Sidney Janis mounted an extravaganza known as “The New Realists: An Exhibition of Factual Work and Sculpture from France, England, Italy, Sweden, and the US.” Twenty-nine artists have been represented, together with Lichtenstein, Warhol, Rosenquist, Thiebaud, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Indiana, and George Segal. The present was so monumental that Janis had to make use of a second area to suit all the things in. In December, “A Symposium on Pop Artwork” was held on the Museum of Trendy Artwork—and Pop artwork turned the identify that caught.
Already multinational, because the present at Janis’s gallery demonstrated, Pop artwork shortly went international. By 1964, the yr Warhol had his Brillo-box present on the Secure Gallery, in New York, and Robert Rauschenberg—not a Pop artist however, in most respects, shut sufficient—received the Grand Prize for Portray on the Venice Biennale, Pop artwork was all over the place.
Lichtenstein was a paint-aholic. He was within the studio six hours a day. After he turned well-known, he and his spouse spent a while on Captiva, off the Florida coast, however he didn’t wish to go there as a result of he didn’t know what to do with himself on a seaside. So he produced a really massive physique of labor. (He died in 1997.) Nonetheless, his identify is synonymous with the comic-book work he made within the early nineteen-sixties—the primary of those, “Look Mickey,” now within the Nationwide Gallery of Artwork, is dated 1961—and, stylistically and thematically, all of the later work grows out of these items. “Roy Lichtenstein: Historical past within the Making” is a glance again down the evolutionary ladder, to the period earlier than the artist crawled onto land.
The pre-Pop Lichtenstein is simply as humorous because the Pop Lichtenstein. His sense of irony runs fairly deep, however he’s at all times playful. It’s placing that, from the very starting, his subject material was not issues or folks however representations of issues or folks. This could be a key characteristic of Pop artwork—and it’s why classifying Pop as an artwork of “frequent objects,” or as “factual” or “realist,” misses the mark. The topic of Pop artwork will not be objects. It’s promoting, journal and newspaper images, packaging, labelling, signage. Pop artists represented the graphic atmosphere in a consumerist world.
For the early-career Lichtenstein, this consisted primarily of illustrations, commercials, and reproductions in textbooks. “It was making a touch upon different folks’s graphic work” is how he defined what he was doing, a few years later, to Calvin Tomkins. His traditional pre-Pop mode was to breed the unique picture in a modern-art type, and his principal fashions appear to have been Pablo Picasso and, particularly, Paul Klee. He used Klee’s palette and his faux-primitivist, two-dimensional type of drawing—goofy faces, lumpy our bodies, simplified kinds.
A notable early instance is “Washington Crossing the Delaware II,” made in 1951, a model (Lichtenstein made two of them) of Emanuel Leutze’s well-known portray as if it have been redrawn by a primary grader. (It’s most likely not a coincidence that Leutze’s is dated 1851, and Lichtenstein’s was painted a century later. He appears to have loved that form of factor.)
The truth is, nearly the entire of Lichtenstein’s pre-Pop œuvre consists of boyish renderings of boyish enthusiasms: battle scenes, mechanical gadgets, cowboys and Indians, medieval knights, pilots, deep-sea divers (most likely impressed by journal protection of the scuba diver Jacques Cousteau). There’s a transient stretch of pure abstraction late within the decade, though that work, too, looks like a pastiche or an imitation of summary portray. By 1958, you begin seeing the face of Mickey Mouse, and also you sense that landfall is close to.
What remodeled Lichtenstein’s artwork into Pop—his early, sketched-in Mickey right into a recognizable primary-color comic-book Mickey—was the identical factor that remodeled Warhol’s: the adoption of a hard-edge type. Lichtenstein removed the painterly patina that had been nearly a sine qua non of avant-garde artwork for the reason that Summary Expressionists of the late nineteen-forties. Even Jasper Johns’s “American Flag,” first displayed in 1958, has a painterly patina. Lichtenstein made his drawing look mechanical somewhat than freehand. The stylistic shift was so placing that, within the early days, Pop artwork was typically known as the hard-edge faculty.
Within the case of the comic-book pictures, the t
ransformational system was not, because it was within the pre-Pop work, reproducing them in a modern-art idiom. It was reproducing them in keeping with the compositional components of effective artwork. Lichtenstein was not simply copying the originals—a standard misunderstanding. His pictures are all derived from precise comic-book artwork, however he altered them, unified their components, made them formally extra like artwork works. “I take a cliché and attempt to set up its kinds to make it monumental,” he defined to Life journal, in 1964, for a bit titled “Is He the Worst Artist in America?” “The distinction is usually not nice, however it’s essential.”