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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Roy Lichtenstein

If all the people who secretly love soap operas, but wouldn't admit it even at gunpoint, were herded to the same place at the same time they'd overflow a major league ball stadium. They'd also probably elect Roy Lichtenstein their favorite painter. We often think of Lichtenstein in conjunction with comic books, and certainly there is this stylistic element in his work, but actually much of his work is more closely related in terms of theme and content to the pretty faces and unhappy plot lines of Days of our Lives.  One of Lichtenstein's earliest, and most famous Pop Art paintings is a 4 by 4 foot canvas depicting a close-up of an attractive, but troubled young lady talking on the phone.  It's titled Oh, Jeff...I Love You, Too...But...  Painted in 1964, this one work encapsulates the plot lines of dozens of soaps, sitcoms, mini-series, and movies, from Birth of a Nation to Titanic.  (Oh, Jack, I love you too, but...the ship is sinking.)   

Oh Jeff...I Love You Too, But...,
1964, Roy Lichtenstein
Lichtenstein was born in 1923, and while he was not necessarily the first artist to explore pop culture in relationship to "high" culture, he certainly was one of the first Americans to do so. (British artists such as Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi created some of the first examples of this type of art back in the early 1950s.)  Today, we smile and look fondly upon Liechtenstein's work, but at the time it was created, his giant cartoon depictions ruffled the feathers of quite a number of art critics. The public loved it, even if they didn't quite understand it (perhaps as a reaction to unfathomable Abstract Expressionism). The critics, on the other hand, understood it only to well, and saw this mixing of pop culture and "high" art as a threat to their preconceived notions of modernism, mainstream art, and where art was "going". Where it was going was not, to their way of thinking, in the direction of comic strips, Brillo boxes, soup cans, Coke bottles, or Marilyn Monroe portraits ad nauseum.   
Today, we tend to dismiss Pop Art as something of a momentary "blip" on the snowy radar screen of art history. And certainly its brief heyday in the early 1960s would tend to support this notion. However, coming as it did following the end of the Modernist era, we have to wonder if the fears of critics such as Clement Greenberg, who sought to shape art history into a neat progression from point "A" in the past to point "B" in the future, weren't entirely unfounded. Pop shook up the art world, stretching definitions of art well past what even many of the abstract expressionists were willing to accept at the time. In retrospect, we now see Lichtenstein, Warhol, and the others as the opening "Pop" of Post-Modern art. But fifty years ago, there was an ambivalence about it. The viewers, the critics, sometimes even the artist themselves, were uncertain whether Pop was embracing popular culture or satirizing it. 

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