TEARS OF JOY by Barbara Rose
Happy Tears, the title of Roy Lichtenstein's 1964 classic pop icon in his signature "cartoon" style, is an oxymoron. Such a contradiction delighted the ironic investigator of the underlying meaning of America's cultural artifacts and the kitsch sentiment they expressed. Today, we can see each of the painters and sculptors lumped together as "pop artists" as individuals with widely divergent styles, techniques and themes. Lichtenstein emerges as one of the most sophisticated and intellectual of the group. His mature style, typified by this painting of a stylized woman's tearful face, plays on the tension between the banal comic strip imagery he employs and the post-Cubist pictorial style he developed on the basis of a thorough analysis of the meaning of modernism.
Roy Lichtenstein died five years ago this Fall, a month before his seventy-fourth birthday, but his work is omnipresent, a constant reminder of the international triumph of American popular culture. There is a case to be made that British artist Richard Hamilton in London actually invented "pop art" in 1956 with his collage paintings of advertisements for household items new to England after the war. However, America soon began producing an art that did not simply collage popular advertisements, but rather created a fresh and unfamiliar style of painting that eliminated the figure-ground relationships which are the basis of representational art and which continue to tie Cubism to its conventions.
The consumer culture that inspired pop art made even deeper inroads in prosperous post-war America than it did in Europe. Moreover, the artists who first looked to the flat graphic style of popular advertisements for inspiration--Léger, Schwitters, Gerald Murphy, and Stuart Davis--were either American like Murphy and Davis or, like Léger and Schwitters, who died in Hollywood-- had worked in the United States. Thus Lichtenstein was the heir to a tradition of using popular imagery, but he made significant innovations within that tradition. Using commercial stencils rather than drawing by hand--although the original compositions were worked out in drawings based on pre existing comic strip images--he used rows of tiny dots technically referred to as "Ben Day" dots to mimic commercial printing as well as a means to provide decorative patterning.
As we now look back with four decades of retrospect, the major innovations of the artists both abstract and figurative of the Sixties become increasingly clear. Two most prominent and influential artists--Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein--are gone and will produce no more works. Lichtenstein, unlike Warhol, was an ironist rather than a moralist. There is always a humorous and witty twist to his handling of subjects.
Warhol's dark vision stressed the tragedy of recent American history, but the classic themes for which Lichtenstein is best known are images drawn from the innocent if superficial world of American teenagers. For boys, this meant war comics based on violent battle scenes extolling bravery and heroism. Teenage girls, on the other hand, received their sentimental education from "love comics" that illustrated formula stories of lost and found romance. This distinction between the masculine and feminine in Lichtenstein's iconography is seldom noted, and yet it speaks volumes regarding the American psyche with its dichotomy between the aspirations of the sexes. Boys dreamed of fighting and competing, but girls were passive victims of their emotions.
Lichtenstein's first paintings were stark black and white, but by the mid Sixties he added the bright primary colors that we associate with Mondrian, as well as the thick black lines that enclose flat color typical of Mondrian's abstract geometric style. Lichtenstein's effacement of brushstrokes and anonymous surfaces also recall the "immaculate" craft of earlier American artists such as the Cubist Realists, Demuth and Sheeler. The style Lichtenstein evolved in the Sixties related directly to Mondrian's emphasis on the flatness of painting and to Mondrian's rejection of the illusionism that characterizes representational art. Thus Lichtenstein's figurative paintings are based on reproduced images, which lack volume and depth. Since his images are based on abstract signs rather than on the observation of nature, he was able to reconcile representation with abstraction by filtering his stylized imagery through reproduction and replication.
Trained as a fine artist, Lichtenstein, like a number of the Pop artists, did commercial store window displays in the Fifties, although he continued to paint abstract expressionist parodies of Remington's cowboy-and-Indian scenes. By the time André Malraux proclaimed the primacy of the art book as "the museum without walls", reproductions had turned masterpieces into clichés. To make art fresh again, artists like Lichtenstein had to look once more to popular culture, as Courbet had originally in the nineteenth century. Only by now, that culture was not folklore or images d'Epinal, it was the lowest form of kitsch and false sentiment. Taking John Cage's advice to wake up to the life they were living, the generation of American artists that came of age in the Sixties painted, drew and sculpted what they saw around them, which was not bucolic nature, but urban mass culture.
A native New Yorker, Lichtenstein had studied with the leading American Scene painter Reginald Marsh at the Art Students' League. Indeed in many respects, Pop art can be seen as the translation of American Scene painting, which was essentially an illustrational provincial style, into a contemporary international modernist idiom. During the late Fifties, Lichtenstein painted parodies of cowboy-and-Indian scenes. By 1961, however, he had turned his attention from kitsch history painting to primitive newspaper and phone book advertisements, which he initially adapted in simplified linear black and white images. His first cartoon image was a giant Mickey Mouse he created for his children.
Lichtenstein's show of Pop paintings in 1962 at the Leo Castelli gallery, better liked by the public than the critics, sold out. By this time, he had consciously begun not only borrowing his imagery from reproductions, but also using the "Ben Day" dots characteristic of cheap black and white reproductions. To stress that he was basing his representations not on nature but on the culture of mass-produced reproduction, he enlarged the dots by means of stencils so that they became an integral and recognizable part of his bold compositions. He made it clear that his images were second-hand, derived not from observation but from printed reproductions. Their banal source was further emphasized by the flat unmodulated local color that represents the limited chromatic range of comic books.
The cartoon style Lichtenstein developed was double edged, apparently naive but actually highly sophisticated. Identifying the printed image as identical with the picture plane, which he filled edge to edge with an enlarged and simplified representation; he emphasized the literal characteristic of painting as a flat surface. This undercutting of illusionism is typical of American art of the Sixties, both abstract and Pop. Lichtenstein's adoption of the subliminal abstraction of the dots, lines, and stripes used to depict objects in comics and in cheap advertisements was one of his many deadpan disguises. The choice of his images as well as his simplified reductive style served to obscure his actual intentions in a way that made the paintings both accessible to the general public and irritating to experts who viewed him as a philistine.
Dealing with "hot" subjects in a "cool" style corresponded with Marshall McLuhan's description of how television changed perception. One suspects that Lichtenstein's intention was to create an art that laid bare such altered perceptions. His calculated and programmatic adaptations of cartoon images of war paintings and stereotyped sentiment like Happy Tears are a constant reminder that the simple surface of things does not necessarily correspond with a complex reality, whose emotional illusions he unveils as such as much as contradicts the spatial illusions of representational art in order to reveal the reality of painting as an object in this present world as opposed to a picture of some imagined time and place in the past.
Fig. 1 Andy Warhol, Liz, 1963
Sold, Christie's, New York, 15 November 2000, lot 12
Fig. 2 Tony Abruzzo, Panel from "Run from Love" in Secrets Hearts, no. 83, November 1962
c DC Comics All rights reserved
Fig. 3 Roy Lichtenstein with Happy Tears
Photograph by Ken Heyman/Courtesy Woodfin Camp
c Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
Fig. 4 Roy Lichtenstein, Ohhh...alright..., 1964
Collection of Steve Martin
c Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
Fig. 5 Tom Wesselmann, Mouth #14 (Marilyn), 1967
c Tom Wesselmann/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY