Roy Lichtenstein



Excerpted from Michael Kimmelman's "PORTRAITS, Talking with Artists at the Met, The Modern, The Louvre and Elsewhere".
Michael KimmelmanChief, art critic for the New York Times, the interviews had their origins in a series of interviews done in the New York Times.

I wouldn't believe anything I tell you," says the painter Roy Lichtenstein, walking through the Metropolitan. Slim and birdlike, the master of Pop has his gray hair, as usual, tightly pulled into a ponytail, accentuating his narrow face, big eyes and beaked nose. He's regarded as someone given to quips rather than speeches, with a puckish, self-deprecating humor and shy, soft-spoken demeanor. He responds to various works with a "no comment," which is his polite way of registering dissatisfaction. He's also intent, serious and unpredictable.

It is the spring of 1995, two years before his death from pneumonia. On this day he wants, among other things, to visit the Old Master, nineteenth- and twentieth-century galleries. The paintings in the museum that interest him are not the ones you'd necessarily expect. Some are obscure, even perverse choices. Others are counterintuitive: his own flat, crisply outlined pictures might lead you to assume he'd like, say, the cool clarity of a David or an Ingres. But he finds them colorless compared with artists like Rembrandt, Fragonard, Hals and van Gogh, whose tactile surfaces are virtually the opposite of his own. "Here I am, extolling the virtues of Fragonard and putting David down," he says at one point, a little sheepishly. "Clearly there's something wrong with me."

For an artist whose paintings based on bubble-gum wrappers and comic strips seemed, when they appeared in the 1960s, to be an attack on the pure abstractionists of the New York School, Lichtenstein can sometimes sound almost like an Abstract Expressionist himself, focusing so much on issues of line and color that he doesn't always notice the subject of the painting he's talking about. "I hadn't realized that this was a funeral," he says, after talking for several minutes about color in front of Manet's Funeral. "I paint my own pictures upside down or sideways. I often don't even remember what most of them are about. I obviously know in the beginning what I'm painting, and that it will be funny or ironic. But I try to suppress that while I'm doing them. The subjects aren't what hold my interest."

To everyone else, of course, the interest of his pictures has always been inextricably linked with the sources he began to scavenge at the start of his career, like Wee Winnie Winkle, G.I. Combat and Secret Hearts ("I don't care! I'd rather sink—than call Brad for help!"). His works first drew attention when they were shown at Leo Castelli's gallery in Manhattan in 1962, where they seemed to critics like the equivalent of a giant pin aimed at the hot-air balloon of Abstract Expressionism, with its soul-searching claims and emphasis on the eloquence of a painter's touch. By contrast, Lichtenstein's art was wickedly ironic and freeze-dried, as if manufactured, because it mimicked, in carefully streamlined form, the black outlines, flat vivid colors and Benday dots of the funny pages.

"Roy got the hand out of art," the painter Larry Rivers once said, "and put the brain in." Lichtenstein was a provocateur. He was a master of satire in the 1960s, and if in his later years he was somewhat taken for granted, this was partly because his ideas had so infiltrated art that they were no longer only his: his mixing of text and image, of high and low, his whole strategy of appropriating images, paved the way for a generation of artists not yet born, or at least not yet out of elementary school, when Lichtenstein cribbed a picture of a girl holding a beach ball from an advertisement for a Poconos resort.

In a much-cited interview in 1963 he claimed that he wanted to make an art so "despicable" that no one would hang it. Probably not even he dreamed at the time that collectors would someday pay millions of dollars to put it on their walls. But, then, it was never easy to know how seriously to take Lichtenstein, and it quickly became clear, after his Castelli debut, that his interests actually extended far beyond making the culture of Mickey Mouse and Bazooka bubble gum wrappers into a new heraldic art. He actually quit using comic-book sources by the late sixties. Working fn the same basic mode, he turned out paintings that mimicked Picasso, Cezanne and Mondrian, whom he treated roughly the way Andy Warhol treated Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley—as brand names. He did landscapes, interiors and nudes, even images of pyramids, whose geometry and compressed abstraction might be more commonly associated with painters like Ellsworth Kelly. He made sculptures, prints and giant murals, like the five-story Mural with Blue Brushstrokes at the Equitable Center in Manhattan, and in later years he exhibited drawings that were mostly his private exercises and preparatory studies, which have about them a feathery, almost hesitant touch very different from his assertive paintings. On what had seemed a one-liner, he composed countless unforeseen variations. They tumbled out of his work like circus clowns from a Volkswagen, so much so that the criticism of his art eventually came to revolve around its sameness: the fact that he turned everything into basically the same cryogenic image.

In all of his work there remained, nonetheless, a particular, unmistakably American quality: a lean, laconic scrutiny of the world that separated his art from the paintings of Europeans of his generation who also borrowed from pop culture sources. The tone dovetailed with his wry and reticent personality, though how much the subjects of his art ever had to do with his own life remains a matter of debate. During the early to mid-sixties, when his first marriage was breaking up, he painted various comely women in conditions of distress, like Drowning Girl and Frightened Girl. Hopeless shows a teary blonde beneath the caption: "That's the way—it should have begun! But it's hopeless!" And In the Car depicts a moment of chilly silence between a man and woman.

Still, Lichtenstein wasn't ever one to discuss his private affairs. He was born in 1923, the son of a realtor and a housewife on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As a boy, quiet and something of a loner, as he later described himself, he became interested in science and listened, like every other kid, to Flash Gordon and Mandrake the Magician on the radio. As an adult he spent hours poring over Scientfic American and Science News.

He began taking art courses at sixteen, and in the summer of 1940 attended Reginald Marsh's life class at the Art Students League. "I did sort of appalling paintings," he remembers. "A kind of Reginald Marsh realism." That fall he enrolled at Ohio State University in Columbus to study art, then was drafted in 1943 and ended up in the engineer battalion of the 69th Infantry Division in Europe. At the end of the war, like a lot of American GIs interested in art, he made a pilgrimage to Picasso's apartment on the Rue des Grands Augustins in Paris, but he was too shy to ring the bell. "I walked away after a while thinking 'Why would Picasso want to see me?' "

He completed his master's degree at Ohio State and in 1951, having been denied tenure, moved from Columbus to Cleveland, for a few years doing odd jobs, including window displays at Halle's Department Store and sheetmetal designs for Republic Steel, meanwhile making frequent trips to New York City to see shows and to sit quietly at the Cedar Bar, unable to introduce himself to de Kooning, Pollock, Franz Kline and the other New York School painters who frequented it. He also began to exhibit: his first solo show in Manhattan was at the Carlebach Gallery in 1951.

Crucially, Lichtenstein took with him lessons learned from Hoyt Sherman at Ohio State, a late Fauvist painter who insisted that even representational art be regarded not as a true mirror of life but in terms of its essential abstract qualities. Through the 1950s Lichtenstein painted and made sculptures in a variety of modes, often tongue-incheek, sometimes influenced by the styles of Picasso or Klee or Fragonard or the Abstract Expressionists. He painted medieval subjects, images of anthropomorphic plants and themes of American folklore, including a takeoff on Emanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware. It wasn't really a big leap from there to his paintings of the early sixties based on comic books and advertisements. By 1957, Lichtenstein had left Cleveland and landed a job at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where a fellow teacher was Allan Kaprow, through whom he also met Claes Oldenburg and others who were to define Pop Art in the early sixties. Kaprow once told Lichtenstein, "You can't teach color from Cezanne, you can only teach it from something like this," pointing to a Bazooka gum wrapper. Contact with artists like Kaprow and Oldenburg, combined with the experience of seeing the early exhibitions of JasperJohns and Robert Rauschenberg, paved the vvay for Lichtenstein's Look Mickey, of 1961, which he called his "first painting with no expressionism in it."

But all along, Lichtenstein continued to see art in Sherman's formal terms, as a variable system of conventions, essentially abstract. The paradox of his work has always remained that its outward embrace of images of everyday life belies an inward concern for art as arrangements of colors and shapes.

Thus his first stop in the Metropolitan is in front of a fifteenth-century Netherlandish tapestry in the Medieval Hall. The tapestry consists of fragments joined together, depicting the Sacraments, and Old Testament figures in the guise of Flemish courtiers in ermine and floral robes, standing in rooms of damask walls and marble floors. Lichtenstein is reminded of Persian miniature paintings by the tapestry's opulence, and considering his own work, you can see why he admires in particular its stylized figuration and dense overall patterning. Bordered and captioned, the scenes can also put you in mind of comics, but this interpretation is clearly a trap on Lichtenstein's part. Comics tell stories, he points out, and "I don't think storytelling has anything to do with modern painting, or with my paintings at least. When I have used cartoon images I've used them ironically, to raise the question: Why would anyone want to do this with modern painting? What interests me here is the use of local color. In the High Renaissance, chiaroscuro altered the use of color, so that instead of having, say, a solid red fill an entire robe, you'd have half the robe darker red and half lighter. And the dark and light areas wouldn't be contained within outlines.

They would create their own patterns within the composition. By the time you get to van Gogh, you might think he's dealing with localcolor again, because there's no chiaroscuro. But of course he's dealing with the intensity and amount of color. Color for its own expressive sake. The intent is entirely different."

In Lichtenstein's own work there's no chiaroscuro and the stress is on the quantity and balance of colors, not on any illusion of depth, though in his late paintings of female nudes, from the mid-nineties, he coyly alludes to chiaroscuro through patches of different-sized dots that don't conform to the outlines of the figures. His idea isn't to simulate shadows precisely, but to symbolize the convention of chiaroscuro, to signal it: like all Lichtenstein's paintings, the nudes ultimately are about issues of perception.

During the Renaissance, perspective held the work together and gave you the sense that the painted image is something seen from your viewpoint. But then later, I think, recognizing that perspective doesn't actually unify the image but is still just a symbol of pictorial unity, and therefore not really necessary, artists felt freer to take liberties, which led to Synthetic Cubism and to pictures where the size and shape of independent colors becomes the organizing principle, like with Mondrian.

"With my nudes I wanted to mix artistic conventions that you would think are incompatible, namely chiaroscuro and local color, and see what happened. I'd seen something similar in Leger's work. My nudes are part light and shade, and so are the backgrounds, with dots to indicate the shade. The dots are also graduated from large to small, which usually suggests modeling in people's minds, but that's not what you get with these figures. I don't really know why I chose nudes. I'd never done them before, so that was maybe something, but I also felt chiaroscuro would look good on a body. And with my nudes there's so little sense of body flesh or skin tones—they're so unrealistic—that using them underscored the separation between reality and artistic convention. I'm sure other people may see the choice of nudes differently, but the images might have been still lifes as far as I was concerned. In fact, the first work I tried along these lines was a still life.

"You know, all my subjects are always two-dimensional or at least they come from two-dimensional sources. In other words, even if I'm painting a room, it's an image of a room that I got from a furniture ad in a phone book, which is a two-dimensional source. This has meaning for me in that when I came onto the scene, abstract artists like Frank Stella or Ellsworth Kelly were making paintings the point of which was that the painting itself became an object, a thing, like a sculpture, in its own right, not an illusion of something else. And what I've been trying to say all this time is similar: that even if my work looks like it depicts something, it's essentially a flat two-dimensional image, an object."

He walks around the corner from the Netherlandish tapestry to find an altarpiece by the fifteenth-century Venetian painter Carlo Crivelli. "Here you have a strange mix of naturalism and abstraction, with this fiat gold Byzantine background, completely decorative, and also these shadowed figures. The artist was trying to make a beautiful object, which is why the gold leaf background is there, but also to be naturalistic. He's sort of in between what camebefore him in art and the illusionism of the High Renaissance. Undoubtedly people saw it in terms of what came before in art, so maybe, in their eyes, it looked naturalistic.

"When people dravv in art classes, the teacher corrects them by saying 'Just look out there and copy what you see,' as though perspective comes from just looking and not from studying Uccello and Leonardo. Everyone would draw like a child without seeing other art. But even the idea of delineating a figure is something young children don't get until they're shown it. People think one-point or two-point perspective is how the world actually looks, but of course, it isn't. It's a convention."

In the early seventies Lichtenstein painted images of mirrors, which were based on another pictorial convention: "Mirrors are flat objects that have surfaces you can't easily see since they're always reflecting what's around them. There's no simple way to draw a mirror, so cartoonists invented dashed or diagonal lines to signify 'mirror.' Now, you see those lines and you know it means 'mirror,' even though there are obviously no such lines in reality. If you put horizontal, instead of diagonal, lines across the same object, it wouldn't say 'mirror.' It's a convention that we unconsciously accept."

Lichtenstein walks upstairs to a room of Goyas, zeroing in on one no longer attributed to him, an imaginary landscape depicting a city atop an immense boulder; a trio of winged men fly outside the city walls while below a battle unfolds. "I've always loved this work, although the experts now don't think it's by Goya, which tells you why you shouldn't believe what I say." He smiles. "Everything is the right color and there's this bravura technique, with daubs of paint that look as if they're squeezed straight out of the tube and pushed around just a little so that they make people or a cannon or whatever. It's a wonderful combination of color and drawing. People sometimes separate great colorists from great draftsmen, but there really is no such thing as someone who's strong at drawing but can't color."

To prove this point, he finds a pair of Jacques-Louis David's, The Death of Socrates and the double portrait of the scientist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his wife, Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze. But, in doing so, Lichtenstein becomes vexed. "Well, this ruins my argument, because you don't have spectacular color here. They resemble colored photographs. They're not insensitive, they're pleasant, but the style David wants to work in forces him away from thinking in terms of color quantities. He was about Truth, Justice and the French way, and I'm sure he knew that the results looked cold. That was his point. He was thinking about precise outlines and detail. But it's interesting to me because the Venetians or Rembrandt, say, were much looser and less interested in detail, yet their works actually look much more naturalistic, which makes sense, if you think about it, because, after all, you don't really see outlines when you look at something in space. You see blurred lines.

"To draw outlines and color them in is about as dumb a way of painting as you can imagine, and you can look at my work and say that's how it's done. And up to a point it is. Partly that's supposed to be ironic. For example, when I did paintings based on Monets I realized everyone would think that Monet was someone I could never do because his work has no outlines and it's so Impressionistic. It's laden with incredible nuance and a sense of the different times of day and it's just completely different from my art. So, I don't know, I smiled at the idea of making a mechanical Monet. But irony alone never makes a painting. I'm always trying to get at something having to do with color, too. I'm trying to make paintings like giant musical chords, with a polyphony of colors that is nuts but works. Like Thelonious Monk or Stravinsky. It's tough to make a painting succeed in terms of color and drawing within the constraints I insist on for myself. And I think it takes appreciation of another sort of art—Fragonard, Rembrandt—to pull it off."

Fragonard's Love Letter happens to be around the corner. It depicts a woman in a silk dress seated at a desk before a window, a bonnet on her head, flowers and a letter in her hands, a fluffy dog at her side. The image is pink, yellow and brown: "boudoirish," says Lichtenstein, who thinks it's great. "Even though the theme of this particular painting is dopey, the colors are beautiful. I know Fragonard's work seems entirely different from mine. But my art is perversely different from my thinking about art." During the 1960s, Lichtenstein points out, he incorporated brushstrokes into his works, which were widely interpreted as parodies of Abstract Expressionism, not to mention of a long tradition of expressive painting. "I couldn't resist, because I had been yearning to paint like that since my career began. My work is, after all, a kind of straitjacket. I did those pictures because it was my way of saying 'You see, painting means a tree made out of brusUstrokes.' True, artists have been saying the same thing for centuries. Hals will show you he can do a beautiful brushstroke that is also a piece of taffeta. So what I was doing wasn't new. But I saw it as referring to a tradition. I realize that, as with Monet, my style is considered to be in total opposition to Abstract Expressionism, but actually I love the Abstract Expressionists, or I like the ones I like, anyway. They put things down on the canvas and responded to what they had done, to the color positions and sizes. My style looks completely different, but the nature of putting down lines is pretty much the same; mine just don't come out looking calligraphic, like Pollock's or Kline's."

More than thirty years ago, Lichtenstein caused a ruckus when he painted his own Cezannes: sendups of Man with Folded Arms, from the Guggenheim, and of Mme. Cezanne, from the Met , in which the originals were stripped of color and the figures reduced to outlines. The works were based on diagrams in a book about Cezanne's compositions; they satirized the book's contention that Cezanne, who claimed that outlines escaped him and who composed images through patches of color, could ever have his portraits turned into black-andwhite pictographs.

"Here Cezanne is painting apples and pears," Lichtenstein observes about a still life in a room of Cezannes at the Met. "But the colors aren't truly realistic and he is doing pretty much anything he wants with them. He's thinking in terms of areas of color, about their position, not about trying to get the table and fruit just right. After Impressionism, Cezanne, van Gogh and Gauguin are really the beginning of color—of color position and intensity—on its own. Cezanne stripped his art of decoration and pattern. He was about pure vision. Gauguin had a vision, too, and his colors must have looked outrageous at the time. They're tough, strong. At the same time his work was meant to be beautiful."

Lichtenstein became nationally famous, or notorious, in 1964 when Life magazine published an article about him, asking '`Is he the worst artist in America?" His work was widely interpreted then as a critical commentary on modern industrial society because of its allusions to contemporary culture and its pseudomechanical look. But Lichtenstein was reluctant to interpret his own art in those terms. "We like to think of industrialization as being despicable," he told an interviewer in the sixties. "I don't really know what to make of it. There's something terribly brittle about it. I suppose I would still prefer to sit under a tree with a picnic basket than under a gas pump, but signs and comic strips are interesting as subject matter. There are certain things that are usable, forceful and vital about commercial art." The Pop artists, he added, are "using those things, but we're not really advocating stupidity, international teenagerism and terrorism."

One of his American predecessors in the use of industrial and commercial imagery was Stuart Davis, whose paintings of everyday objects are often considered protoLichtensteins. The Davis on view in the twentieth-century rooms at the Met is a big gray mural done in 1939 for WNYC radio's Studio B. "Everyone except me knew the sources for my works six seconds after I painted them," Lichtenstein says, before the mural. "I knew about Davis but the connection wasn't strong in my mind when I did Pop Art. He did gas stations and cigarette ads decades ago. But the period wasn't right yet. They have a corny American quality, as if he's Americanizing a European idea, meaning Synthetic Cubism. I think there are very good Stuart Davises. This isn't one of them."

Elsewhere in the twentieth-century rooms, he warms more to paintings by his friend JasperJohns, and less predictably praises a big Susan Rothenberg and Balthus's Mountain. "I don't understand Balthus's relationship to the history of art," he says, "but I don't think that matters. It's good painting."

About Picasso, Lichtenstein believes that while "Matisse is very great—I don't mean to put him down—Picasso's colors are even more daring, wild and strong. Not wild like the German Expressionists, who painted figures green. Picasso's colors grew inevitably out of his style. And he seemed to understand art so fundamentally that he could generate wholly different styles, each of which had its own particular tonality."

Lichtenstein settles finally on a group of Ellsworth Kellys: a tall standing steel sculpture, nearly rectangular, and two shaped canvases, one of them all blue. "This is the ultimate in color intensity. It's entirely about the relationship between color and shape. There's no modulation of color. Modulation is usually read as atmosphere, it gives you a sense of recession. But here you don't have that, there's no illusion, which turns the picture into a thing, the opposite of a window. It's like a sculpture that just happens to be on the wall.

"I know Ellsworth says it comes from nature. But I don't know why you'd want to say this, because art relates to perception, not nature. All abstract artists try to tell you that what they do comes from nature, and I'm always trying to tell you that what I do is completely abstract. We're both saying something we want to be true. I don't think artists like myself, or Ellsworth, have the faintest idea what we're doing, but we try to put it in words that sound logical. Actually"—Lichtenstein grins—"I think I do know what I'm doing. But no other artist does."

[Artist web site]