Painted Ink, Printed Balloons

Last week, the Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote a review of a show at the Gagosian Gallery in New York featuring portraits of women by Roy Lichtenstein. The paintings are from the early sixties. A slide show with excerpts from the review is available here. The article ("The Painter Who Adored Women") makes clear that Smith loved the show.

There are of course many artists who have drawn on the graphic vocabularies of commercial modernity. Without dipping into the ranks of illustrators and graphic designers, a short list of painters might include Leger, Murphy, Davis; Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, Warhol, Wesselman; late Guston (sui generis); Haring, Scharf, Salle, Pittman, etc. etc. Of the group, I personally get more from Davis and Guston than anybody else.

The relationship between comics, contemporary cartoon-oriented popular art (e.g., Tim Biskup), and the philosophically- or theoretically-oriented fine art of the late modern and post modern periods is a complex one. But there can be little doubt that much writing on the subject by the art press betrays a lack of knowledge and seriousness about the sources that inform painters like Lichtenstein.

Ms. Smith addresses the catalogue, and mentions a component of the promotional material that suggests a lack of understanding of sources:

Richard Prince...contributes a small inserted brochure. It juxtaposes each of 22 steamy pulp-fiction covers of books (all titled with female first names) with a Lichtenstein woman painting. The illustrations of scantily clad, curvaceous femme fatales would seem to be the last thing Lichtenstein had in mind.

Richard Prince has proven himself to be magnificently indifferent to sources in the past. But this suggests plain old wrongheadedness. If you want to ask questions of Lichtenstein's work as against the visual culture that provided its impetus, look at Steve Canyon or the romance comics that emerged in the aftermath of the Comics Code in the mid-1950s. These sources, with wildly varying levels of integrity, both visual and narrative, are built with the abstract language of calligraphic key drawings and industrial coloration through the optical mixture of several inks. Put Lichtenstein up against Milt Caniff, not for competitive purposes, but reflective ones. It's not a bad idea, really. What would the comparison reveal?

What about the textual origins of Lichtenstein's dialogue in romance comics?

But the comparison of Lichtenstein paintings with pulp covers? The latter are fundamentally engaged in the problems of modeling in paint, quasi-illusionistic spaces, and full-figure illustration. The visual issues are not related at all, and the cultural ones aren't much more so. Disappointed lovers and femme fatales are quite different figures.

Romance magazine covers bear on Lichtenstein's work less directly, but significantly.

Smith continues:

What he had in mind was form, a transformation of the terms of real and fake that...was beyond either, a thing in itself. This show makes especially clear how Lichtenstein’s work functions as a kind of primer in looking at and understanding the grand fiction of painting: the thought it requires, its mechanics, its final simplicity and strangeness. These great paintings convey all this in a flash of pleasure, compounded by the thrill of understanding.

That's pretty darn purple for plainly derivative paintings that simulate blown-up comics. For my money, Roy's best works were his archly savage spoofs of abstract expressionism and the cult of authenticity at its core. But the bigger question--the challenge to be addressed--is a high cultural casualness about and indifference to sources. 

For the thousandth time, I am reminded that we lack a comprehensive history of images and visual forms: we must build a parallel art history, a blend of cultural anthropology, the history of technology, and modernist aesthetics.

I will return to Davis, Guston, and Lichtenstein presently.

Roy Lichtenstein, Forget it! Forget Me!, 1962

Stuart Davis, Colonial Cubism, 1956

Lichtenstein, Happy Tears, 1964

Milt Caniff, Terry and the Pirates Sunday strip, single panel, 1944

Caniff, Terry, daily strip panel, 1937

Illustrator unknown, cover, Exotic Romances, No. 28, circa 1955

Illustrator unknown, cover, Range Romances, February 1951

 cover, Life Romances, circa 1950

Philip Guston, The Street, 1977[?]