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When Pop Turned The Art World Upside Down
Andy Warhol and friends oversaw the death of a centuries-old tradition and the birth of the postmodern.
February/March 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 1
In February, a few weeks after Oldenburg closed the Store (owing his gallery $285), Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist unveiled their new work in tony uptown galleries, Rosenquist at the Green, on West Fifty-seventh Street, Lichtenstein at the Castelli, on East Seventy-seventh.
What Rosenquist was after in early canvases like The Lines Were Etched Deeply on the Map of Her Face (1962) and Pushbutton (1961), was the way fragmentary images flash by us—the side of a woman’s face, a streaking yellow taxi, a pair of staring eyes—discontinuous and alluring, when we hurry across a busy street or flip through a television’s channels. Whereas Warhol and Lichtenstein strove for impersonality, Rosenquist’s personal touch was always visible. He sought to dazzle. Of pop’s major figures, he was the most likely to appeal to conventional tastes.
A writer once asked Lichtenstein why he had started painting comic-book characters. “Desperation,” he answered. “There were no spaces left between Milton Resnick and Mike Goldberg [two second-generation abstract expressionists].” He added on another occasion, equally mordantly, “It was hard to get a painting that was despicable enough so that no one would hang it. ... It was almost acceptable to hang a dripping paint rag. . . . The one thing everyone hated was commercial art; apparently they didn’t hate that enough either.”
Newsweek came to Lichtenstein’s opening: a remarkable coup for a relatively unknown artist, a sign of the buzz pop was already generating, and a portent of the role the media would play in its rise. The Newsweek writer, though clearly uneasy, refrained from judging Lichtenstein. Others would shortly be less reticent. “One of the worst artists in America,” wrote Brian O’Doherty of The New York Times in 1963; The New Yorker ’s Harold Rosenberg called Lichtenstein “an academic draftsman retooled to blow up comic strips.”
Lichtenstein’s early pop subjects fell largely into three groups: war comics, romance comics, and everyday objects (golf balls, range ovens, etc.). At first, the comic-strip paintings seem to be mere copies—Lichtenstein was “making a sow’s ear out of a sow’s ear,” wrote O’Doherty—but in fact the works depart significantly from the originals. A comparison with, say, the source that Lichtenstein used for Takka Takka (1962), shows that the differences are substantial. And the longer one looks at Takka Takka , the more striking it is, at once elegant and vulgar, with a resonance the original never had.
Artists from Picasso to Romare Bearden had appropriated others’ work, but they had almost always made it part of a collage or some other larger whole. For Lichtenstein (and Warhol), the appropriated image was the whole. Lichtenstein was not a collagist; he made second-generation pictures, which raised all sorts of troubling questions. Was he ripping off the original artist? (He and Warhol were both sued, Warhol successfully, for using others’ work). What constitutes originality? In a culture glutted with images, is originality not only impossible but beside the point?
When Warhol first saw Lichtenstein’s work, in mid-1961, he was distraught; Lichtenstein’s comic-strip paintings were obviously better than his own. “Right then I decided that since Roy was doing comics so well, that I would just stop comics altogether,” Warhol wrote, “and go in other directions where I could come out first.” Serial repetition, for instance, a concept very much in the air, largely thanks to the avant-garde composer John Cage. Soon Warhol was producing row on row of dollar bills, S&H Green Stamps, and bright red-and-white Camp- bell’s soup cans.
By the late summer of 1962, the rubber stamps Warhol was using to imprint a repeated image began to feel “too homemade,” as he put it. He wanted something “that gave more of an assembly-line effect,” and he hit on the technique that became his trademark: photosilkscreening, or printing a silkscreened photograph onto a painted canvas. ”... you get the same image, slightly different each time. It was all so simple—quick and chancy,” he wrote in his memoir, POPism . Warhol’s paintings aren’t paintings at all; they’re hybrids, half painting, half photograph.
Which doesn’t lessen the creativity involved but merely shifts it to other areas: finding the right photograph to silkscreen, for instance. “There was in Warhol an intuitive ability to appropriate for his paintings just the right mass-media photographs and emblems from literally millions of options,” said the artist Allan Kaprow. “Furthermore, he had an oldmaster sense of the placement of images on a field. . .” And his color sense was exceptional; the critic John Russell once called him the greatest colorist since Matisse.