This article 1st appeared in The Prices Do DC – December 23, 2012
In 1961, at the urging of a fellow Rutgers University art professor, Roy Lichtenstein loaded up a station wagon with a few pieces of his new art work, and, accompanied by his colleague, headed across the river to New York to try to convince an influential gallery owner that his work should be exhibited. Among those paintings was “Look Mickey, 1961.” On a first look, the gallery owner was impressed and Lichtenstein was on his way to sharing billing with Andy Warhol as the 2 most noted artists in the school of visual creation that came to be known as Pop Art.
But as art historian Avis Berman points out, Lichtenstein was no overnight sensation. “His life was divided into 2 roughly symmetrical halves: 38 years of obscurity and 36 years of permanent fame,” Berman says. “He hung in and hung on.”
Berman’s remarks came during a lecture entitled Roy Lichtenstein: Voices from the Archive she recently delivered at the National Gallery of Art as part of that institution’s major retrospective of Lichtenstein’s work now on display.
As consultant for the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, Berman has conducted more than 200 interviews with the artist, his family, and those who knew him. One of the most unusual aspects of her talk was that it was punctuated more than a dozen times by the actual words recorded from Lichtenstein himself. “Call it an art historian’s version of a Tony Bennett duet,” Berman joked before she began her talk.
Berman said Lichtenstein, best known for his trademark use of benday dots that he used to create works lifted from cartoons and comic strips, was constantly intrigued by the question – what is art? As Lichtenstein put it, “I was always baffled by why are these few marks art and these few marks are not art? Why is one valued and the other one isn’t?”
On Pop art, Lichtenstein said, “Part of the intention on Pop is to mask its intentions with humor. But Pop should also tell you something you didn’t know.”
Berman said the oral interviews have greatly expanded the understanding of both Lichtenstein and his work. “He had no impulse to accumulate documentation and he lived in a time when the telephone was replacing the letter as the means of communication,” she noted. “The more we can understand the background of an artist the more easy it is to understand the art.”
For example, her interviews revealed that despite his fame, Lichtenstein was extremely generous. “He gave anyone who did something nice for him or anyone who worked for him some of his art work,” Berman said.
Much of Lichtenstein’s reputation rests on the fact that he upended virtually every prejudice of high art that existed at the time he began his Pop work. However, Lichtenstein admitted that his breakthrough was really unplanned. “My ability was way above my awareness. The rationales came later. I guess anyone can become a crazed genius for a second,” he joked during one of his interviews.”
Lichtenstein definitely believed that all art isn’t really new, but is based on the art of the past. “It takes a lot of generations of artists looking at other artists to produce new art,” he said.
Berman said she doesn’t agree with the contention that Lichtenstein was simply aping work others had originally created. “He didn’t just copy. He changed and strengthened the original completely. He looked at what had been overlooked,” she said.
The art historian maintains that Lichtenstein and Warhol will remain significant figures in the history of art. “Pop was denigrated but it has come to be recognized as a legitimate school of art. It captured the zeitgeist of the 1960s,” she contended.
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