25 March 2009
Roy Lichtenstein: The Revolution in Banal Art
Roy Lichtenstein was born on October 27, 1923 in New York City to Milton and Beatrice Werner Lichtenstein. A solitary child by nature, Lichtenstein grew up developing an interest in science and science fiction, as he listened to Flash Gordon and Mandrake the Magician on the radio. Science fiction would later be highly influential to Lichtenstein’s style, specifically his works reminiscent of pulp and comic books (Kimmelman).
Lichtenstein’s interest in art was developed independently of his schooling, as there was no art department available at his high school. Jazz offered an early outlet to Lichtenstein’s passion; he would draw portraits of the musicians and their instruments during concerts at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. It wasn’t until 1939, when Lichtenstein attended classes at the Arts Students League under Reginald Marsh however, that he gained any formal artistic training (Waldman).
By 1940, Lichtenstein arrived at Ohio State University in order to earn a degree in fine arts. College was put on pause for three-years however when Lichtenstein opted to join the war effort during WWII. War had a significant emotional effect on Lichtenstein which later surfaced through his pieces; as April Kingsley noted in her article, “Review: Roy Lichtenstein’s Drawings,” “His reactions to the violence and horror of war were expressed in cartoon stereotypes derived from action comics,” (Kingsley).
Following his stint in the army, Lichtenstein returned to Ohio State University and began learning under the tutelage of Hoyt L. Sherman, who would have a profound effect on Lichtenstein’s later work. “Sherman’s method was to flash various images onto a screen which the student was then trained to draw from memory…thereby providing a perfect grounding for Lichtenstein’s cold, depersonalized, mature style,” (Kingsley). Lichtenstein himself even conceded that “the ideas of Professor Hoyt Sherman (at Ohio State University) on perception were my earliest important influences and still affect my ideas of visual unity,” (Swenson).
Lichtenstein began to produce pieces for show upon entering the graduate program at Ohio State while simultaneously being hired as an art instructor. His works in the early 1950s focused on flora and folklore, but especially the American West (Kimmelman). Lichtenstein’s style and subject matter however shifted significantly through the course of his career, refined especially during the period Lichtenstein painted full-time, following 1963. By 1961, comic strips on children’s bubblegum wrappers stimulated the development of his “reductive” comic book style, while his subjects were influenced by “the most kitchy and clichéd forms of printed mass communication: comic strips, newspaper advertisements, even the telephone book Yellow Pages” (“Lichtenstein” 5). The mid to late 1960s also saw the development of Lichtenstein’s “subversive” commercial illustration techniques to convey common objects (Pascale 90). The 1970s and 1980s noted an expansion of Lichtenstein’s traditional stylistic elements as he focused more fully on abstract expressionism, adapting images of Picasso and Mondrian, attempting to make “clichés that occur in Picasso more clichéd,” (Sylvester).
Roy Lichtenstein died September 29, 1997 of pneumonia in his home in New York City. His emphasis always remained on the absurd and clichéd throughout his long career however.
Roy Lichtenstein, rightfully deemed one of the fathers of the Pop Art movement, forged a style that was reductive and bold, in which common objects splashed the subjects of his canvasses. Seeking influences especially from communication media: comic books, advertising, and even the yellow pages, Lichtenstein’s artwork reflected the generic, standardized subjects of those influences. Through the course of his career, this genericism manifested itself in his art as comic book characters, common commercial goods, and eventually the reproduction of masterful works such as Picasso and Matisse. He created pieces that were easily accessible to the masses through either recognizable characters i.e. Mickey Mouse, recognizable household objects, or a recognizable pulp style, all the while remaining irreverent. His use of Ben-Day dots, bold, flat colors, and reproductions allowed Lichtenstein to retain a sort of flippant outlook on the impersonality of an industrial American culture and its inherent clichés in relationships, consumerism, war, and fine art. What he forged was a sort of anti-art, in which he ironically and humorously “convert[ed] the banal into art and debase[d] fine art through commercialization” (“Roy Lichtenstein”). Beyond merely acting as social commentary, Lichtenstein’s art was always a reflection on what precisely made art, art.
Roy Lichtenstein’s piece, “The Kiss V,” painted in 1964, reflected his interest in cartoon imagery, combining primary, flat colors and thick, black outlines. The bold image that Lichtenstein forged, the exaggeration of the couple’s physical characteristics parallels the exaggeration of their romantically-charged situation. As Lichtenstein himself responded to the query of why paint images of emotional or romantic scenes, “I think that it has a lot to do with all kinds of things presented through the media in the modern day I mean, it’s even in the movies- you know, two people are about to kiss, and in reality you’ve got a guy at the camera with a cigar in his mouth,” (Bowie). In this manner, Lichtenstein created his kitschy, emotional scenes to address the realities in American relationships rather than to pay homage to love. Through such a painting, Lichtenstein used a cliché (the couple’s emotional embrace) to hearken to the realities of a 1960s couple, while the style itself reflected a distancing from traditional artistic forms in choosing to present the couple as two-dimensional cartoon characters.
“The Kiss V,” a 1964 silkscreen print, presented a man and a woman locked in an embrace. At the forefront of the image was the woman; dominating the left side of the picture was the woman’s hair: wavy, bright yellow, which was highlighted by thick, black lines to convey individual hairs. Unlike the rest of the image, her hair did not possess the Ben-Day dots characteristic of the couple’s skin tone and the background. It is also one of the brightest aspects of the picture along with the woman’s lips and the man’s shirt. The woman herself is tipping her head up to rest it on the man’s shoulder and cheek, while simultaneously looking into his face. A vertical black line on her forehead, between her eyebrows suggests a crease of anxiety. While similarly, two short horizontal lines by the woman’s right eye also suggests squinting as she cries. The tears on the woman’s face are extremely well-defined, rather than a few stray tears by her eyes, the tears resemble small puddles of light-blue. In comparison to the woman’s flesh tones and tears, the color of her lips, hair, and man’s shirt are extremely bright. Her lips are a bright hue of red, and on the bottom lip, a white line suggests a certain shine or sheen on her lips, characteristic of lip gloss or lip stick. Beside the woman’s face, the woman’s hand resides, which takes up about half of the forefront of the image. The stray black marks on the woman’s hand suggest the motion of her gripping the man’s shirt. The perspective of the image seems to be slightly skewed and one-dimensional as the woman’s left eye is visible in spite of the fact that the image is directly facing the right side of the her face. The woman’s eyebrows and eyelashes utilize significantly thicker black lines than the rest of the image, conveying a sort of grooming- makeup.
In the background of the image is the man, partially obstructed by the woman. Of his features, one can only make out one eye, part of his face, and an ear. His eye is turned downward to face the woman, whose face is right below his eye. Three tiny parallel lines are adjacent to his eye conveying a crease of worriment. His eyebrows consist of extremely thick black lines, thicker than the width of the woman’s eyebrows. In addition, a sort of shading is employed below the ear in order to carve out his jaw-line. Taken together, the aforementioned elements suggest a masculinity in the man. What’s visible of the man’s cheek is dominated by three curving lines, emphasizing the force with which the woman is smashing her own face to his. His shirt is a deep blue in color.
The physical appearance of the man and woman that Lichtenstein forged were highly exaggerated to convey the archetypical 1960s man and woman. The woman herself appears extremely well-groomed, with bright yellow, wavy hair, bright, shiny red lips, and dark, thick eyebrows and eyelashes. Each element suggests a form of makeup or grooming, from the use of hair curlers, to lip stick, to penciling-in eyebrows. Similarly, the man exudes masculinity through his blue shirt, well-defined jaw line, and thick eyebrows. Both the man and the woman’s physical appearance maintained their traditional roles in society, where the man appeared strong and rugged while the woman was polished and refined. Lichtenstein thus used the physical appearance of his subjects to develop a cliché of gender roles in American society, in which the man was brawny and the woman graceful. Further, “the subjects [the man and woman] looked as though they came straight out of the most kitschy and clichéd forms of printed mass communication: comic strips, newspaper advertisements, even the telephone book, Yellow Pages: Lichtenstein’s rendering imitated the impersonal ‘unartistic’ look of such imagery” (“Lichtenstein” 5), especially through his use of Ben-Day dots which were reproduced for use on the couple’s skin tone. In creating his art to reflect such influences of mass communication, Lichtenstein elevated the banal to art while simultaneously stratifying traditional gender divisions, which were especially reinforced through the image’s content.
Lichtenstein’s image of a man and woman embracing does not necessarily present a symbiotic relationship, but rather that in which a distraught woman is forced to rely on a man for emotional comfort. In the image, the woman is crying upon the shoulder of the man; her tears are extremely large and there is evident worriment in her face. In spite of her sadness, the woman’s face notes a hint of relief in being in the man’s arms. She grips his shoulder tightly and forcefully positions her face against his. Similarly, the man appears at ease in his position as comforter, holding the woman steadily in his arms as he looks down upon her. In creating an image during a couple’s embrace, or “the tense and climactic moments in narratives when the effects of masculinity and femininity are at their most extreme, Lichtenstein polarizes gender roles that are constructed less rigidly by the comic book,” (Whiting 9). Lichtenstein subtlety addresses women’s dependency on men and men’s dominating nature in American society during this era.
Lichtenstein’s “The Kiss V” presents an image of a man and woman locked in an emotional embrace. What on the surface appears to be simply a romantically charged presentation, even an affirmation of love and trust, Lichtenstein subtlety exaggerated to create a cliché of a standard 1960s man and woman in their traditional societal roles. He prods the audience to consider the garish facet of relationships. Lichtenstein’s focus on comic book imagery helped to propel the prosaic to the level of fine art, and in doing so, he emphasized a nihilistic tendency in breaking accepted artistic rules.
By the mid-1960s, beyond simply cartoon representations of poignant scenes, Lichtenstein’s style shifted to reflect a growing interest in consumer items and mass production. By removing the brand names from his paintings, contrasting himself with other “Pop-Art” artists including Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein established an inherent genericism in American consumer culture. Lichtenstein still employed irony in his paintings, however works such as “Tire” and “Hot Dog” address consumerism in America, while still further boosting the commonplace to the level of art. As Lichtenstein himself noted, “Why do you think a bill or a tree is more beautiful than a gas pump? It’s because you’re conditioned to think that way. I am calling attention to the abstract quality of banal images,” (“Special Report: The Story of Pop!”). In this way, Lichtenstein addressed a pervading irony in his consumer pieces, that beauty is based on perceptions.
1962’s “Tire” characterizes Roy Lichtenstein’s shift in subject to consumer items, while his style still retained a similar rendering of cartoon imagery. Unlike his other images, and even other consumer images of Lichtenstein, “Tire” is two-toned. The background of the image is white, while the tire itself is black and white. Gray is not employed to convey degrees of darkness, but rather a certain amount of shading by deciding how much space to put between lines. Close-set black lines on the hub cap of the tire suggest minimal shading compared to the use of black on the right-hand side of the tire (left-hand side of the picture). As a result, the tire seems to be placed in some sort of light source as the majority of the tire is white, while the parts that are not exactly in that perspective are darkened. The most elaborate aspect of the tire is the treads on it, which employs a continuing pattern of pentagons and triangles. Beyond the treads of the tire, the image appears quite rudimentary in design, with few details. Even the hub cap appears to be just an outgrowth of the tire, and beyond the shading, possesses few features. To provide further evidence to attest to the tire being under a light, the hub cap too possesses a shading conducive to the availability of light and the inclusion of shadows. The upper portion of the cap is white, with a few lines, short curved black lines to convey the shape of the cap and also the inclusion of some shadows. While further, the lower portion of the cap is completely ensconced in darkness- shadows. Lichtenstein similarly used thick black lines to structure his piece.
Lichtenstein’s focus to commercial items reflects his desire to unearth a new facet of American culture- its consumerism. This analysis of the genericism within mass consumer culture was evident both in his subject matter and use of branding (or lack thereof). Both the style and subject matter of the piece reflect Lichtenstein’s unwavering desire for his art to reflect life- a nihilistic approach to art in his rejection of artistic forms and movements. Lichtenstein’s commercial pieces therefore do note the impersonality of American consumer culture, however more importantly Lichtenstein’s commercial pieces reflected on the increasingly industrial nature of America (Swenson).
“Tire,” a painting completed in 1962, notes Lichtenstein’s tendency to display a singular object against a blank background. The greater emphasis granted to the tire as an isolated object notes a “forced genericness,” according to author Michael Lobel. Unlike his Pop-Art counterpart Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein opted not to create rows of identical objects, focusing on genericism rather than standardization (Lobel 44). Beyond merely the presentation of the single object, the monochrome palette of the image reflects a flatness and impersonality. Rather than being splashed with an array of colors, Lichtenstein painted “Tire” in simple black and white. This propensity for plain colors was evident in other consumer works including “Kitchen Range,” in which a stove and food was painted entirely in a royal blue with a yellow background, and “Hot Dog” in which the meat in the image was simply presented with red hues and the bun in a standard yellow. As Lichtenstein himself noted, he created such a limited palette in order to create “the most contrast. Each colour had a certain character to me: the yellow was acid, and a colour that seemed to contrast as much as possible with it was a blue that was almost violet … I got some of these colours from supermarket packaging. I would look at package labels to see what colours had the most impact on one another,” (Lloyd). The plainness of the colors paralleled the plainness of the source- advertising.
Beyond simply the color palette that Lichtenstein employed, it was his decision to shift away from branding that truly conveyed the genericism of the image. Prior to his inclusion of consumer images, Lichtenstein frequently focused on the well-known images and characters in his works. “Look Mickey” created in 1961, featured both Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, while others included Bugs Bunny etc. As Lichtenstein’s subject matter began to reflect American consumer culture, he began to shy away from the use of well-known objects. This shift from well-known objects to more generic subjects paralleled his amendment to no longer utilize brand names in his paintings. Characters such as Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse alluded to the brand of Walt Disney, ergo once Lichtenstein shifted to consumer images, the images were devoid of both branded characters and branding in general. This decision contrasts highly with works of other Pop-Artists, including Andy Warhol, who frequently displayed brand names in their works, including Campbell. This shift from branding is especially evident in the work “Golf Ball” painted in 1962, where author Michael Lobel compares Lichtenstein’s creation of the “Golf Ball” image to the original advertising that he was reproducing, in his book Image Duplicator. The most profound change, Lobel asserted, was the “removal of the brand name from the golf ball’s depicted surface,” effaced by moving the dimple marks of the golf ball (Lobel 44). In removing the brand names from his images, Lichtenstein continued to emphasize the standardization of American consumer culture. However, all of his consumer images continued to achieve his objective of creating art out of non-art.
By the 1970s, Lichtenstein had again shifted the focus of his subject matter to reflect reproductions of masterful works, reflecting on what precisely made fine art, “fine.” He reproduced works from Picasso to Matisse to Mondrian to Monet. In each case, Lichtenstein exaggerated and copied the elements that made the masters famous, reducing them to clichés. Rather than elevating the banal to the position of art, Lichtenstein ironically converted art into the banal and kitschy. His 1969 painting, “Haystack,” accomplishes this by creating a cliché of Monet’s seminal paintings of wheat-stacks.
1969's "Haystack" modeled after Monet’s wheat-stacks, as it is pentagon in shape. The lines of the stack consist of very thick, black lines, characteristic of all Lichtenstein’s works. The haystack itself is a bright, yellow in color with unvarying hues, in spite of being placed in a light source. Rather than affecting the coloring of the stack, the sun created shadows on the right-hand side of the stack with thicker black lines and on the ground, beside its right side. The lines that comprise the stack are wavy but do not reflect the material of the haystack and show no texture. The haystack was created as very much a blob, given structure only by the few lines around the haystack, which formed the pentagon. The haystack resides on a hilly ground that differs in color from the haystack only by the inclusion of thick Ben-Day dots. Unlike other works by Lichtenstein the Ben-Day dots in this particular image are especially pronounced, granting greater emphasis to its banal quality. To convey the sense of hilliness, Lichtenstein utilized two thick wavy lines over the ground and a wavy line as the outline thus creating a sense of unevenness.
Besides the haystack, which is the only object in the scene to be devoid of Ben-Day dots, the most evident structures in the piece are the trees in the background. On the left hand side of the picture, a group of four trees are grouped together; their leaves appeared to be conjoined. Lighting is explored in depth in the picture and as a result the trees are ensconced in shadow and darkness. Similarly, on the right-hand side of the picture, a black blobby structure, outlined in wavy lines suggests the inclusion of more trees or shrubbery. The sky is a very pale blue in hue, perhaps a pale cornflower or pale sky blue.
Many of the stylistic elements in “Haystack” reflect Lichtenstein’s convention of creating pieces directly influenced by printed mass communication. The background, for example, was forged directly through the use of wide Ben-Day dots. Similarly, the color scheme was minimal, employing only the same tone of yellow, black, and a pale blue for the sky. These colors did not vary in hue while the shapes were similarly unvarying, with no inclusion of texture. By these such elements, it would appear that Lichtenstein is forging one of his standard pieces, in which either the subject matter or the style or both deems the picture non-art. The difference in this case relates to the fact that the subject matter, far from banal, was already used as a subject in the influential work of Monet. Lichtenstein took the elements that had originally made the piece so notable, exaggerated them, and created something very much banal of them. Especially resembling the Monet piece, “Meule, Effet de Neige, le Matin,” Lichtenstein reproduced all of the present elements including the wheat-stack, the wheat-stack’s shadow, the hills on which the wheat-stack sits, and the flora in the background. The name of Lichtenstein’s piece even reflects this desire to simplify, as his piece is called “Haystack” while Monet’s haystacks were always referred to as wheat-stacks; he removed the details that made Monet’s piece elaborate. His simplification of masterful works created pieces that were comparable to “five-and-dime store Picasso or Mondrian…[thus] making the clichés that occur in Picasso more clichéd” (Sylvester). In this manner, Lichtenstein noted what precisely he thought made the pieces so distinguished and created a cliché out of them. This exploration of what makes fine art “fine” was especially prevalent in Lichtenstein’s works with brush strokes however. In such cases as 1965’s “Brush Stroke,” he generated images of brush strokes that were bold and reductive, with thick black outlines and a flat color palette. “Formally a vehicle of expression, the brush stroke now took on additional tasks: it was an ironic cliché signifying ‘fine art’” (“Lichtenstein” 5).
Lichtenstein’s focus on masterful works of art allowed him to continue his reflection on art itself. While previously utilizing banal situations and objects and advancing them to a level of art, the shift towards reproductions achieved the opposite result, his reproductions took masterful subjects and perverted them into the banal and kitschy. Utilizing a different approach to the same goal, Lichtenstein explored what truly constituted art, creating a cliché of those elements that originally propelled the masters to distinction. Throughout his 30+ year career, Lichtenstein’s style always retained a sort of frivolous air, “in which parody is more than balanced by a hypnotic visual simplification that compels attention,” (Roberts 514) within his work. His style, which always reflected the influence of printed mass communication, gave a lighter air to Lichtenstein’s social commentary, creating as noted, parody rather than derision. In spite of Lichtenstein’s flippant commentary, at its core, Lichtenstein’s artwork revealed his desire to both understand and influence views on art. Hearkening to the Dadaist movement of the 1920s, Lichtenstein chose to break accepted artistic rules in order to return art to its simplest form. He questioned accepted subject matter and styles, propelling pulp stylization into the mainstream. Despite Lichtenstein’s shifting styles over the course of his career, he always retained an irreverent outlook on American art and American society.