Executed in 1964, this work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
Painted in 1964, Roy Lichtenstein's Ohhh...Alright illustrates the brash comic styling of his most celebrated period of artistic production. As with all his greatest images, Ohhh...Alright...is at once striking and subtle, humorous and highly serious. Lichtenstein lifted the stunning blue-eyed, flame-haired beauty that fills the frame from the pages of a romance comic and rendered it larger-than-life. She forms part of the much admired cast of dreamgirls painted between 1961 and 1965 that saw Lichtenstein attain international prominence as one of America's most exciting and controversial artists. Created in conjunction with his explosive war paintings, these images of love-struck women reflect the artist's formal interest in a generic style of representation, while simultaneously addressing the cultural dichotomy between male and female stereotypes.
The visage of this 1960s sweetheart represents a single panel from a graphic love story that Lichtenstein dilated to the scale of a 36" x 38" easel painting. He presents this image without context, the narrative flow frustratingly incomplete. The solitary, emblematic figure leaves us guessing as to why she looks so crestfallen, as she mutters into the phone clutched at her ear. It captures the Pop master's innate gift for editing, capturing the telling gesture of an emotive moment. In his hands, the subject's corny theatricality has become an image of mystery, where the past and future events of the storyboard can only be surmised. It disrupts our desire to engage with the scenario and forces the viewer to analyse the image on its own terms. The work owes its vivid monumentality to the careful scrutiny and distillation of a pre-existing image selected from thousands of random possibilities. Lichtenstein then adapts his source, removing distracting details, lines, figures, or words to present his compositions with the ultimate clarity.
The seamless surface of Ohhh...Alright... may look as if it was rolled off a printing press in a matter of seconds, but it is actually the product of a long, painstaking procedure. Lichtenstein chose the original illustration from the DC comic book Secret Hearts, which Lichtenstein has made his own by subtly manipulating its content. He created the prototype for the painting in the form of a small pencil drawing, where he turned the blonde girl into a redhead, and eliminated extraneous background detail. A key part of his re-composition was the removal of the speech bubble emerging from the telephone receiver that announces, "I'm sorry, Nancy, but I'll have to break our date! I have an important business appointment." This significant adjustment not only allows the heroine to occupy more of the picture plane, but also opens up greater possibilities of interpretation, while cleverly zeroing in on the essence of the scene. Lichtenstein then enlarged the image with an opaque projector to trace the outlines onto canvas, before applying color in a way that mimics the feeling and texture of newsprint.
Lichtenstein's series of romance paintings drew on the slightly dated comic books published for the burgeoning Post-War teenage market. The plotline of these stories typically follows a young girl who falls in love with a young man; a serious problem arises to threaten the relationship, and the heroine is briefly devastated before an inevitable happy conclusion. The appeal of both the romance and the war comic genres for their readers probably lay largely in their predictability, which emphasized the normative view of masculinity and femininity in 1950s America. Men fought and won battles, while women fell in love and married. These subjects fulfilled Lichtenstein's fascination with strong visual and cultural clichés as well as his preoccupation with form and style. By selecting and amplifying the romance genre beyond all normal bounds of scale in works like Ohhh...Alright..., Lichtenstein sharpens its essential content - pointing out how adolescent notions of love are insistently reinforced through representation in popular culture. The romance comics are essentially illustrated soap operas aimed at readers presumably navigating the treacherous waters of love for the very first time. Yet Lichtenstein's paintings address an audience of sophisticated adults that will mostly have found love to be at odds with its idyllic promise. Nevertheless, few among us ever completely give up on the dream of perfect love, as the endless stream of Hollywood romantic comedies attest to every year.
For this series, Lichtenstein scrutinized his female subjects, editing and re-presenting the crux of their trials and tribulations. He usually chose to depict these heroines in a moment of vulnerability, suspense, or worry to evoke an irrepressible sense of empathy in the viewer. The young woman in this painting is no different. Her furrowed brow, pursed lips and faltering, deflated speech clearly show she is somehow unlucky in love. Whereas his war paintings remove the internal musing their protagonists in favor of decisive, action-oriented demands, the romance pictures often expose the heroine's romantic anxieties through words of empathy, hurt pride, frustration, and despair. The snippets of conversation tend to emphasize their lack of resolution, as can be seen in the ellipses in the present work, and the closely related portrait of a blonde on the phone intoning "Oh, Jeff...I love you, too...but..." (1964), or the stammering "M-Maybe he became ill and couldn't leave the studio!" (1965). Their unresolved emotional thoughts leave them in a state of suspension, a condition that is further highlighted in paintings with titles such as Drowning Girl (1964, Museum of Modern Art, New York), Hopeless (1963, Offentliche Kunstmuseum, Basel) and Blonde Waiting (1964, Private Collection). In this way, Lichtenstein deliberately exaggerates the difference between masculine action and female emotion, while foregrounding the role of representation in reinforcing these archetypes.
Tellingly, the dates of Lichtenstein's comic book paintings correspond with his own marital break-up and his choice of themes appear more than coincidental. The war and romance series both select tense, climactic moments when the conventional images of masculinity and femininity are at their most extreme. While the men in the war scenes are all action and anger, the women for the most part appear passive, anguished, and unable to control their destiny. The duality of these subjects may well have helped Lichtenstein to cope with the hopes and disappointments of this tumultuous time, while also indicating his pessimism in the stereotypical love story. These scenes enabled him to both mock and indulge that attraction. When asked by an interviewer later in life why so many of his female portraits are weeping, Lichtenstein replied, "Well, I was in the middle of a divorce. I don't know if that had an effect, but it might have" (quoted in E. Richardson, "Those Lichtenstein Women", Harper's Bazaar, October 1993, p. 236). Yet the reserved artist generally felt uncomfortable with this personal reading, as his friend and fellow artist Allan Kaprow confirmed, "everyone at the time thought the paintings were about his personal life, but you couldn't ask about sensitive issues like that. He'd roll his eyes and make a joke" (quoted in B. R. Collins "Modern Romance: Lichtenstein's Comic book Paintings", American Art, vol. 17 no. 2, Summer 2003, p. 75). By 1965, Lichtenstein had finalized his divorce and he gradually phased out the comic imagery, perhaps having fulfilled his psychological need.
The other view of the comic based works contends that he simply chose them to create a contradictory aesthetic encounter between cool formalism and culturally low, emotionally hot subject matter. "At that time," Lichtenstein recalled, "I was interested in anything I could use as a subject that was emotionally strong - usually love, war, or something that was highly charged and emotional subject matter to be opposite to the removed and deliberate painting techniques. Cartooning itself usually consists of very highly charged subject matter carried out in standard, obvious, and removed techniques" (quoted in J. Coplands, ed., Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1972, p.89). Lichtenstein certainly found in this material a rich potential for the dispassionate portrayal of exaggerated emotion. The paradox of his work has always remained that its outward embrace of quotidian imagery belies an inward concern for art as arrangements of colors and shapes. Having developed a concern for form through years of working within an Abstract Expressionist mode of painting, the relation of a mark, or an object to the picture plane and the assertion of this surface as a finite, static zone was of the utmost importance to him.
In Ohhh...Alright..., Lichtenstein demonstrates his sense of pictorial completeness. Using the Ben Day process to systematize his mark making into standardized units, he destroys any sense of depth while highlighting the artifice of the figurative image. Lichtenstein diffused the contour of the woman's face with small dots and surrounded it with solid black contours, thereby reconciling her image with the flat plane on which the artist placed her. He designed the pretty redhead to occupy the picture plane emblematically rather than spatially and he carefully cropped her to create an equalized composition, neither horizontal nor vertical. Lichtenstein would start with a strong image, but once he had decided what to paint, he would try to see beyond its content and look at it as just marks on a canvas. In order to distance himself further from the subject matter he designed an easel capable of rotating the canvas so he could work on it from all angles. He would turn his paintings on their side, or upside down, and studied them in reverse with a mirror to ensure he had achieved a tightly interlocking, all-over composition. In this way, Lichtenstein was able to treat the high drama of his images as an abstract problem in delineating space and form.
His new aesthetic, one that amplified printed images in a manner that denied any record of the artist, or his artistry, was highly provocative to contemporary audiences. From the moment of its first public appearance, Lichtenstein's audacious appropriation of commercial art was recognized as an affront to the work of painters from the previous generation. Not only was his work blatantly representational after decades of denying representation, but it also aligned itself with the kitschy lowbrow tastes of the public. His subject matter and his methodology seemed hostile to passionately held views on originality, invention, and expressivity, as Lichtenstein played down the idiosyncrasy of the artist's hand in favor of uninflected surfaces that replicate the look of the machine-made. The precise, "mechanical" style Ohhh...Alright... may appear to equate his imagery with Warhol's famously stated desire to become like a machine, but Lichtenstein preferred to create single rather than the multiple images. Here, the pre-processed origin of the image is made brutally self-evident in order to dismantle the suspension of disbelief with which we, as viewers, look at reproduced images.
The enlistment of parody complicates the reading of Lichtenstein's work, but by reproducing the reproduced, he aims to draw attention to the way people are compelled to apply meaning and value to the most basic signs. He has explained how graphic symbols triggered his emotions as a child, and how his perception shifted as an artist: "When I was a child and I looked at the comic books, these women were really convincing. I really thought these were very beautiful women. Now I see the drawing in it and they don't look that way to me. I mean, you could really have a love affair with these women as a child, and now these don't mean that to me in the originals, in the comic books" (quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2002, p. 228). There is a certain subterfuge at work here then, as Lichtenstein uses the pitfalls of romantic love to distract us from the essentially abstract colors, shapes and forms that goes into this picture's making. He has redeployed the shorthand techniques with which advertisers and illustrators conjure a sense of beauty, to signify the fiction of representation. Lichtenstein's calculated adaptation of cartoon imagery therefore reminds us that the simple surface of things does not necessarily correspond to complex reality.