Thursday, November 02, 2006

Lichtenstein the Ingrate

The most recent email newsletter from ArtKrush, a sister publication of Flavorpill, featured this Boston Globe article about Roy Lichtenstein's questionable sampling. The journalist, Alex Beam, writes:
"Color me naive, but I never thought Lichtenstein's work was a direct copy of scenes from comic books. I assumed that he stylized certain scenes suggested by the comic vernacular of the 1950s and 1960s. 'He tried to make it seem as though he was making major compositional changes in his work, but he wasn't,' says [David] Barsalou, who teaches at the High School of Commerce in Springfield. 'The critics are of one mind that he made major changes, but if you look at the work, he copied them almost verbatim. Only a few were original.'"
Barsalou's website, "Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein," shows the original comic panels alongside the related Lichtenstein painting. It's worth a look.

That Lichtenstein stole his imagery from superior artists doesn't particularly bother me. At least, it bothers me a lot less today than it did a decade ago. The disapproving murmurs regarding "the implications for copyright law" will soon be mute; for better or worse, intellectual property is swiftly becoming a thing of the past. Lichtenstein's "borrowing" may have been deemed outrageous in the 1960s - had he been exposed - but we now live in the era of the re-mix and the sample. It doesn't matter that he stole. (Curiously, Lichtenstein got rich turning work intended for print reproduction into "one-of-kinds." Today, we are beginning to see some back swing of this pendulum, with reproduction and dissemination gaining ground on the one-of-a-kind sacred object.)

What does bother me - nay, what infuriates me - is Lichtenstein's elitism. The effete hack sampled, but he did so without acknowledging the source. He knew he could get away with it, as his social situation protected him from any outcry on the part of the comic artists. Lichtenstein was a member of the "high art" aristocracy. All but a few of that circle - artists, critics, dealers, and collectors alike - held the more popular (and populist) art forms in contempt, believing them trivial, mundane, and intellectually bereft. And to that, I expectorate, "Fuck you, assholes."

A decade ago, when I was more likely to let fists fly, Lichtenstein was the one artist I dreamed of pummeling. I can't rationalize this rage, but one rarely can; I loathe the man for his absurd insistence that his cribbed paintings were works of art while the source was mere froth.

Happily, I rest more easily these days, confident that Lichtenstein is quickly turning into a cultural blip, one of the many hundreds of artists celebrated in his or her lifetime, only to be discarded or, at best, relegated to the footnotes decades after their death.

The moral of the story: we like comics better than phonies and, Roy, we're fed up with your kind.

Photo credit: image ripped from "Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein"


Recon said...

It's shocking to see how much was copied. That's unbelievable!

Hungry Hyaena said...


Yeah, I know. When I first realized how close his paintings were to the originals, I freaked. That was about 15 years ago, when I still planned on becoming a comic illustrator for a living.

Then, when I read interviews with the man, I lost what little respect remained. An example of his laughable arrogance:

"What I do is form, whereas the comic strip is not formed in the sense I'm using the word; the comics have shapes but there has been no effort to make them intensely unified...The difference is often not great, but it is crucial." (from a 1963 interview with G.R. Swenson)

Um...what, asshole? A quick survey of the comparisons on Barsalou's website show that the original comics are usually stronger, both compositionally and graphically.

To be fair, plenty of "fine" artists have adopted - or interpreted, recontextualized, deconstructed, blah blah blah - the work of more talented, sophisticated fringe artists, be they "outsider" artists, folk artists or popular artists and illustrators. Lichtenstein just raises my hackles more than most.

Cooky Blaha said...

no offence but as an objective observer I thought almost every Lichenstein compared was better than the original. especially in the famous ones like Blam! with the plane exploding, his changes are quite obvious and quite compelling. I dont really care because Im not much of a Lichenstein fan, and yeah in a nicer world he shouldve credited the originals more..I guess. I thought his sampling is better than D loeb's, at least. Toodles xoxoxox

Hungry Hyaena said...

Cooky Blaha:

No offense taken, Cooky. Art is always subjective. In fact, I agree in some cases; the planes and explosions are usually improvements on the original, even though I don't feel Lichtenstein changed much compositionally.

I also agree that his sampling was more interesting than Loeb's.

heaps said...

I have hung art in a lot of fancy apartments, and every time these rich people have a Lichtenstein, they always hang it in the kitchen.
What's up with that?

Chris Rywalt said...

This outing of Lichtenstein amazes me. I totally didn't know this, and I'm a big comics fan. Never once was this mentioned in any comic-related book I've ever read. Okay, I'm not the biggest comic nerd in the world, but still, I'm surprised.

I was never very fond of Lichtenstein either -- in fact, I've mentioned more than once that it annoys me when fine artists try their hand at comic characters, because they're usually so lousy at them (Lichtenstein couldn't even draw a decent Mickey Mouse -- and his lettering sucks, too). It also annoys me when comic books are "elevated" to art status (cf. Chris Ware) because it makes everyone look stupid.

His interview you quote only makes it worse. Now I want to beat the guy up, too. Sadly, he's dead. God has already kicked his ass.

To think that he lived well while Siegel and Shuster died nearly penniless (and in Joe's case, legally blind).

Hungry Hyaena said...


Interesting. Maybe the inevitable grease build up makes them better?


Agreed (mostly). Chris Ware and other artists who are embraced by the "fine art" world do make good work. I don't think it's that superior to all the other comics which aren't taken seriously, but the only party that looks silly when excessively praising Ware is the pretentious Art World boob; the work isn't diminished just because the cultural cognoscenti have agreed to play along.

Chris Rywalt said...

I just find it dumb that in order to be considered as art, by and large, comics have to be moody, introspective, and quirkily drawn. No superheroes here!

Meanwhile I don't find Chris Ware more compelling than Joss Whedon and John Cassaday's work on Astonishing X-Men. Which is not to say I think either of them are ART.

Exploring this in my head, as I do, I think I've pinpointed that I'm biased towards the audio-visual and away from reading. I'll class painting, drawing, music, and film as art, but I have trouble including books, comics, and video installations as art. Something, for me, about engaging a rational thought process precludes the profound physical experiences I associate with true art.

And videos just suck.

Anyway, it seems to me that any time comics and art are mixed, both comics and art suffer.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

What are you talking, how it could be better then original?

Alex said...

Sure Lichtenstein never cited any source, however he considered the paintings his own interpretations of comic panels. You also need to take into account the size of the paintings. He was taking a minuscule drawing and blowing it up into a huge painting, which created a totally different context. He was not the only one to pull a stunt like this. Other artists have pulled comic swipes as well, including Bob Kane!