REMEMBERING ROY LICHTENSTEIN
SEPTEMBER 30, 1997
Paul Richard, art critic for the Washington Post, and Phil Ponce take a look at the life of Roy Lichtenstein who died this week.
PHIL PONCE: Roy Lichtenstein, one of the originators of pop art, died yesterday at age 73. He rose to prominence in the 1960's by making art based on cartoons. And whether the images were of romance or war, his works often parodied and poked fun at American life. Paul Richard is the art critic for the "Washington Post." He joins us now for a look at the artist and his work. Welcome, Mr. Richard. First of all, why was Roy Lichtenstein considered an important artist?
PAUL RICHARD, Washington Post: Oh, he was a lovable artist, and he left a very strong imprint on 35 years of American painting and American pop culture. And he took elements of pop culture that were really not at all a part of the world of--high world of painting and brought them together.
PHIL PONCE: So what did he do that hadn't been done before when you talk about making new elements of pop culture, what do you mean?
PAUL RICHARD: He took images that had no esthetic content. You could open a romance magazine if you were a teenage girl or a war comic if you were a teenage boy, or flip through the ads in the back of a New York tabloid and see images that your eye would just skip over. He took these images, copied them, at first rather crudely, but then with fabulous elegance, and made these images deserving of being scanned or attention paid to them equal to the art in museums. And he really broadened what we saw as and thought of as art.
PHIL PONCE: So he used cartoon images as a way of what, making us look at cartoon images in a different light?
PAUL RICHARD: Well, he--you have to understand he came out of a period where abstraction and art that was really visibly not about very much was on the center of the table. Lichtenstein came along and took these images and adjusted them. If you look at the comics that he was "copying" and paintings that resulted when he was through, they really don't look very much alike at all. He would thicken a line--look at the nose on that woman--or adjust the composition or the sort of abstract qualities. If you don't know that you were looking at a comic strip, you would think this was a very elegant and very cunningly designed piece of work.
PHIL PONCE: That's an interesting point. He didn't just blow up a comic strip. He would manipulate the images. He would manipulate the composition, the thickness of the line, and the color.
PAUL RICHARD: If you ever saw a show of his work, what you left with was a feeling of the curious most buoyant elegance, no mistakes, no sloppiness. You're showing relatively early pieces, but by the 80's and the 90's his work was high chic from the moment you stepped into the gallery.
PHIL PONCE: Let's stick with some of his earlier stuff. One of--his breakthrough piece was called "Look Mickey," and this was a piece that was first exhibited in 1961/62, and here--
PAUL RICHARD: There it is.
PHIL PONCE: --we have Donald Duck saying, "Look, Mickey, I've hooked a big one." Why was this a significant piece?
PAUL RICHARD: Well, if you can imagine how "shocking" it was to see a comic strip on the wall of Leo Castelli's gallery in 1962, it got a lot of attention. But previously there had been things on the wall that were just blank canvasses or active brush strokes. And suddenly he took what was kind of an illegitimate subject for art and painted it in such a way that when you saw the object--I'm not talking about the reproduction on your television screen--but saw the object on the wall, it said, "I am a serious painting. And people believed it.
PHIL PONCE: So, did one have to see the work personally to believe that it was art, because some of the early critics would look at it and say, please, that's just a blown-up cartoon--what makes it art?
PAUL RICHARD: It's very hard to decide what makes something art but with Lichtenstein's case everybody recognizes art pretty quickly. He showed for the first time in 1962 by within 10 years he had the highest prices that were ever paid for any living artist. He'd had a mural at the World's Fair in 1964. The first painting he sold out of Castelli's gallery was sold to the architect Philip Johnson, the man famous for sophisticated taste. And Lichtenstein was really very easy to see as a classy and elegant and always sort of twinkly and funny image on the wall.
PHIL PONCE: But what was he trying to say?
PAUL RICHARD: I think he was trying to broaden the arena in which a permissible imagery in serious sort of progressive art--it didn't only have to be about gods or goddesses; it didn't only have to be about atrocities of World War II or tragedies or Freudian miseries; that things that we sort of took for granted, normal parts of American life, could be allowed into this realm, and he just brought them in grinning and chuckling.
PHIL PONCE: One of the pieces that you mentioned in your column this morning is a piece called "Image Duplicator." What is it about "Image Duplicator" that you like? Here we have--
PAUL RICHARD: We have a kind of mad scientist saying, "What? Why did you ask that? What do you know about my image duplicator?". In a science fiction comic that would probably fit into the normal narrative; you wouldn't think about it twice. On the wall of Castelli's gallery it was, of course, was a pun about Lichtenstein himself. Here was this image duplicator. He took images and somehow tweaked them and toned them and adjusted them and made them look not like comic strips but like Lichtenstein's.
PHIL PONCE: Humor was important. Had humor been important in art at that time?
PAUL RICHARD: Humor is always problematic in art. It's like humor in church. Art is very much at ease with suffering and the beauty of the God-created world, but jokes were not considered really permissible. And Lichtenstein was somebody who always had humor and cheery humor in his heart.
PHIL PONCE: He's been described as someone who was incredibly nice, modest, and hard-working, somebody that people would naturally like. Did that come through in his heart?
PAUL RICHARD: Yes. And the art was the same way. He really wanted to please and at a very high level. He was, as far as one could tell, a man of no bulging ego. He was--went to the studio every day as if he was going to the office. He made thousands of paintings and prints and drawings and distributed them widely. And he was a very honorable, nice guy, and known as such in the art world for a very long time.
PHIL PONCE: Paul Richard, I thank you.
PAUL RICHARD: Thank you.