Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Whaam! Roy Lichtenstein

Washing Machine




Roy Lichtenstein: The Comic Strip as Serious Art

Contrary to popular belief, Michael Jackson was not the original King of Pop, or at the very least, not the kind of Pop that is relevant to this paper. Of course, I am referring to Pop Art, and one of the pioneers of this artistic movement was Roy Lichtenstein. Born on October 27, 1923 in New York City, Roy Fox Lichtenstein is most famous for his larger than life creations. His works brought an edgy, deliberately commercial feel to the world of art. He is one of my favorite pop artists because his works are more than just statements about the post-industrial milieu in which he worked, they are also pithy and incredibly dense with a subtle political and social commentary. His works are surprisingly humorous at times, especially some of his early comic book adaptations, which have a deliberately melodramatic quality.
He was educated in Manhattan at the Franklin School for Boys, where he first explored his natural talents in art as a hobby rather than part of his formal coursework. Later he enrolled at the Art Students League of New York, where gained some formal instruction in art from another famous painter, Reginald Marsh. In 1943, barely having moved to study art at Ohio State University, he was drafted into the army during the Second World War. After three years of service, he returned to the states and resumed his studies at Ohio State, where he was significantly influenced by Hoyt L. Sherman, who was his teacher and mentor of sorts. He graduated in 1949 with a Masters of Fine Arts from Ohio State and married Isabel Wilson in the same year.
In 1951, Lichtenstein had both his first artistic exhibition at Carlebach Gallery in New York and moved to Cleveland, where he would spend the next six years of his life. He would undertake various positions to make ends meet, even working as a window decorator for a time. His early work is influenced by both Cubism and Expressionism, neither of which would be the predominant styles of his later pieces. Lichtenstein started teaching at the State University of New York in 1958, but eventually left this office to teach at Rutgers University. It was here that he would start developing his cartoon-like, early pop-influenced artistic style.
Lichtenstein did not attain a certain level of fame until the mid-to-late 1960s. During this period, he designed some of his best-known works, including Pop! ,Girl with hair, and Blam!(1962) What makes these works characteristic of Lichtenstein’s style is that they are not only abstract and minimalist in their use of line and primary, bold coloring, but they have a comic-book-like design which makes them prime examples of early Pop Art. This rise to fame was accompanied by a commission from BMW to paint a Pop Art version of the BMW 320i, which he designed in 1977.
One of Lichtenstein’s most famous works is his Whaam! (1963) which depicts a fighter plane launching a rocket into another airplane. The second plane is seen exploding into a ball of red and yellow flames, with the word “Whaam!” diagonally arranged in block letters on top of the explosion. The scene is taken directly from two panels in a DC comic book, in true Lichtenstein style. Part of the appeal of comic book scenes for Lichtenstein seemed to be the fact that they employed highly emotional content but in a very commercial and detached manner. Simple dot-matrix patterns on relatively cheap materials still managed to contain poignant subjects like war or destruction (as in Whaam!), as well as heartache and love (as in Hopeless, 1963).
Still, one of the central difficulties that confronted Lichtenstein, especially during the early critical receptions of his pieces, involved the “limits of articulating an identity as an artist when one’s work is so intertwined with the languages of advertising and mechanical reproduction” (Lobel 41). In other words, it is rather difficult to forge a unique style and identity from works that were intended for commercial consumption and meant to be easily reproduced. In his ability to take the ubiquitous and commercial and transform it into high art, Lichtenstein managed to set the bar for the Pop Art movement. His works can transform the everyday into something grand and imposing.
The fact that his canvases are unusually large, for example his 143cmX174cm depiction of a hand loading a washing machine, attributes a grandiosity to his work’s unassuming subject matter. In the picture I have posted, there is a direct comparison between the image that was originally the inspiration behind Lichtenstein’s Washing Machine and the actual piece. One thing that immediately stood out to me was the complete absence of labels or brand names. Even the hand seems strangely generic as it pours out the contents of an unmarked yellow box that, for all its lack of identification, still clearly conveys the message of consumerism.
Still, it seems that Lichtenstein’s purpose in creating his stylized versions of mass produced images was not simply to represent the brands themselves. In fact, their complete absence from the scene is more than enough to indicate this was not his aim. Lobel suggests that this lack of concern for the specific packaging of familiar brands was a central feature that distinguished his work from the other major Pop Art figure of the time: Andy Warhol.
Where Lichtenstein may distort and obscure logos to the point of making them unreadable, Warhol’s main focus seemed to be showcasing and capitalizing on the brand’s design, so as to emphasize the commercial aspect of the subject matter. It seems to be that one way of reading this stylistic difference could be that the two artists had different aims in their use of commercial products. Whereas Lichtenstein would signal out the peculiarities of a single item through simplification and distortion, Warhol focused on the “standardization and repetition of consumer products” (Lobel 44).
Toward the end of his career, he experimented with a variety of artistic mediums from metal to printmaking. His work gained a tremendous amount of commercial success. Ironically, as he tried to eschew the limelight, some of his contemporaries, notably Andy Warhol, relished the opportunity to bask in the glow of their renown (and, for Warhol, this renown usually added up to notoriety). So famous and well-received were his later works that one actually sold for a record breaking amount of money, 5.5 million, making Lichtenstein an icon in his own time.
In 1997, he gave an interview in New York where he discussed his approach to his art. His approach to his art was part methodical planning (stating that his works were almost always planned in sketches before preparing the canvas) and part humor. The last point is especially interesting to me, he describes even the most heavy-handed of his works as containing a kind of humor because of their style. In speaking his more serious paintings, he stated “…the method, the cartooning, so that the dots, black lines, things like that, sort of tell you that its not serious art” (Roy Lichtenstein Interview). But then again, serious art can be funny, with an irreverent tinge to it. Yet, it seems that this characteristic approach to his work as something with a potential for seriousness as well as humor also proved central to the Pop Art movement as a whole.
Sadly, Lichtenstein died of pneumonia in September of 1997, in New York, but not before revolutionizing the art world by renovating and reinvigorating the use of the everyday, the humorous, and the just-plain-overlooked, in serious art.

Lobel, Michael. Image Duplicator: Roy Lichtenstein and the Emergence of Pop Art. Yale Publications in the history of art. Yale University Press, 2002.
Roy Lichtenstein Foundation. http://www.lichtensteinfoundation.org/frames.htm
Roy Lichtenstein Interview. Excerpted from David Sylvester's "Some Kind of Reality.".Originally recorded in April 1997 in New York City.


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  2. This article really helped me in my assignment, question goes like this, find a famous work of pop art by Lichtenstein and then, with popular culture, explain how this piece of text portrays the views and values of modern consumer society, thank God for internet, George Neequaye, 2014, Freshman, Ashesi University, Accra, Ghana.

    October 2, 2010 5:06 PM