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(Case Histories in the Pathology of Modern Art, No. 2)

In order to deal with the verbiage of Art Critics we have to reemphasize the fact that words really do have meanings, and they must be used with precision if they are to function well.  We don’t get to make up new meanings as we go along.  Unfortunately, people become  accustomed to vagueness, and some may even begin to approve of fuzzy language as achieving what they want—though in truth it cannot do anything well.  We must also ask what is really important in understanding art.  For example, is novelty the same thing as creativity . . . and if that is so, is Michelangelo lacking in creativity because his statues do not exhibit novelty in obvious ways?  And are new things all better than old ones? . . . something that might honestly be said about bathtubs and toilets, but is it true of art?  Of course, the answer to both questions is “no.”


Lichtenstein is unlike traditional artists in that he passes off images from comic books and advertisements as meaningful paintings.  Is this novelty?  Does it fill you with awe?  The image in “Drowning Girl,” for example, comes directly from the title page of “Run for Love,” a story from a DC Comics book of 1962.  A sail-boat is keel-up in the background, and a young man is clinging to it.  In the foreground is a girl whose face and one hand are out of the water.  The thought-balloon over her head reads, “I don’t care if I have a cramp–I’d rather sink–than call Mal for help!”  The most visible changes are that Lichtenstein left out the words “if I have a cramp” and changed “Mal” to “Brad.” The swirls in the water are only slightly different, and the image of the girl is the same except for added tears.  In fact, Lichtenstein says, “The closer my work is to the original, the more threatening and critical the content.”  (Threatening?  Critical? More about this simplistic nonsense later.)  Any thoughtful viewer would think that this is plagiarism—taking an image from someone else and making it public, with or without changes.


Lichtenstein tells us that he projects the image he is going to draw with his opaque projector, and adds, “I don’t draw a picture in order to reproduce it—I do it in order to recompose it . . . I pencil it in and then I play around with the drawing until it satisfies me.”  Carolyn Lanchner, whose book provided these quotations, says that the “playing around” actually “led to fairly radical re-composition.”  Let’s see.  He has chosen to show us no more than the girl’s head from the thought balloon down to the hand, the thought balloon being moved a little to the left and lowered down into her hair.  One wavelet is moved from the left to just below her chin.  So, it’s “recomposed,” but that is actually trivial and doesn’t give it any special meaning.


He tells us he thought that the boyfriend’s name should be more “heroic,” so he called him “Brad.”  Is this somehow heroic, and if so–so what?  What does it mean to say that this, “has to do with oversimplification and cliché.”  (What is oversimplified and what is the cliché?)  We are told that the foaming edges of the waves are—in part—a reference to Hokusai’s “The Great Wave at Kanagawa,” and that this “is a way of crystallizing the style by exaggeration.”  Again, what can this really mean and what difference does it make?  (It’s worth noting that in the original the nodules of wave foam are treated in very much the same way without any reference to Hokusai!  That may even have given Lichtenstein the idea of saying this.)  What we have is a copied image with the text changed by dropping the words, “if I have a cramp.”  The basic meaning of what she is saying is unchanged, and the re-composition amounts to little more than accommodating it to the rectangular format.


I can’t say that any of this will be clarified by looking at some of his other works, but the language used in discussing them may tell us a little more about what is going on—or not.  “Girl with Ball” came directly from an advertisement for the Mount Airy Lodge in 1963.  Lanchner tells us that in 1961 Lichtenstein had decided to use cultural clichés to “challenge the aesthetic clichés of high art.”  Remember that changing the boyfriend’s name to Brad was said to “have to do with oversimplification and cliché.”  Is “Brad” supposed to be a cultural cliché, and if so, how?  This doesn’t make any sense.


Let’s go on with “Girl with Ball.”  She is wearing a one-piece swimsuit and is holding a beach ball above her head with both hands.  At a glance, the greatest differences between Lichtenstein’s copy and the ad is that the beach-ball is smaller, and the head is a tad too large.  He has “reformatted” it by putting it in a long rectangle which is cut off just below her waist and just below the top of the ball. A rather jagged line behind her is said by Lanchner to represent the beach in one essay, and in another she says it represents water .  She tells us the “Mondrian-like harmonies of red, yellow, and blue on canvas necessarily provides an intensity of mood beyond the reach or ambition of its source.”  Well, the source is an ad, so references to its reach and ambition are rather strange . . . especially its ambition.  And while it is true that *Mondrian colored rectangles in his canvases red, yellow, or blue, there is nothing Mondrian-like about Lichtenstein’s work, and no particular harmony or intensity of mood is in sight.


Now we have a statement about what Lichtenstein is supposedly accomplishing: “Passing from the arena of life [the ad] into the hermetic space of art, Mount Airy’s pinup girl trades lusty vitality and its diffuse associations for an exquisitely calibrated unity.  Her figure, abbreviated to half-length is no longer an agglomeration of robust parts but is joined by pictorial rhyme and defined by a single uninterrupted black line.”  It isn’t clear what the “diffuse associations” of the girl’s well-being can mean.  And talk about the “arena of life separated from the hermetic space of art” is puzzling.  “Hermetic” mean “magical,” “obscure,” or “air-tight.”  Why is art regarded as being in a space, and how can it be hermetic?  If this is a metaphor, it is of little help. And what are we to make of “calibrated” here, and does “pictorial rhyme” mean anything, and if so, precisely what?  It merely tells us that he has taken the image from the ad, contained it in his rectangle and drawn its outline with a black line.  It is still not a remarkable image in any way.


Lanchner makes a great deal of the fact that the dip in the bathing suit at the breast, the curve of the upper lip created by the philtrum, and the widow’s peak of her hair have similar shapes—which isn’t remarkable at all—those are the shapes they always have.  Then, she says: “Her origins on the printed page are alluded to in the simulated benday dots of her flesh—literally and visually they form a screen, equating her presence with the planarity of the canvas support.”  Ben-Day dots are simply the dots, black or colored, that were used in printing images before lithography became so common.  They would have been used to tone the flesh of the black and white original, and Lichtenstein has created something of this appearance, probably by stamping the canvas with a textured fabric.  Okay, this is an “allusion” to the printed page, but what, precisely, does it mean to say that the dots equate her presence with the planarity [flatness] of the canvas support?


Let’s look at one more example, this one a non-representative image of his own invention: “Modern Painting with Bolt,” 1966, is a nearly square painting that has a circle in the middle with a sort of wing coming up from it near the top on the right side.  There are three circles along the bottom textured by blue Ben-Day dots, and they are on a solid blue field.  This field is wavy on the top, and above it is a medium-dark field made with blue Ben-Day dots. It too has a wavy edge, and above it is a lighter field made in the same way.  A circular blue field surrounded by two rings intrudes into the picture on the left.  Again, the rings are textured with two tones of blue.  Bars of solid red, almost in the shape of a letter-N, lie behind the circle in the middle, and there are also angular areas filled with red Ben-Day dots.  A zig-zag of yellow comes from the upper left corner down to the lower right, hence the word “bolt.” There is a little more, but this may help you to visualize what it is like.


We are told that the bolt extending across the various elements “carries a visual impact equivalent to suddenly erupting sound.”  I don’t think anyone can reasonably compare a still image with an eruption of sound; in fact, this image lies there at every moment—no eruption.  But the commentary becomes even more fanciful when it supposes that image “takes on implications of figuration.”  Now, “figuration” means the making of forms, or shapes, and even symbolization.  It is a fuzzy word.  We can go on with this: “The great streak of lightning might illuminate a synoptic, Cubist-derived view of a storm at sea from one of the great ocean liners of the 1920s and 1930s.  The vibrant screen of blue benday dots undulating across the lower part of the picture could be a continuation of the ocean as seen from the three portholes at the bottom and, above, the torqued rectangle of pale-red dots is an atmospheric glimpse of sky.”  This is little more than a fancy since nothing clearly suggests a ship, or portholes, the sky, or a storm.  All we have is the yellow streak and the word, “Bolt,” in the title, which suggests lightning.  (And what is “synoptic” supposed to mean here?)


I don’t think any of this holds together.  If one is to see the figures of actual things in any these shapes, the “wing” is the most obvious one, but it doesn’t seem to fit in with anything else.  People playing this game could take the red angular shape as being swastika-like and the yellow lightning-strike as being SS-like.  The wing, then, could represent the bombers that were shot down by the Nazis to fall into the sea, below.  This is both hideous and stupid, but it makes as much sense as the other notions.

*The essay, “Mondrian,” is No. 1 in Case Histories of the Pathology of Modern Art.

Insofar as it is meaningful to talk about challenging the clichés of high art by doing what Lichtenstein has done, wouldn’t it be necessary for people to know the original image, and shouldn’t they know what the cultural clichés and the clichés of high art actually are, and which of those—specifically—is being challenged, and beyond that, why is it meaningful to do so, even if it were possible?  Why is this worth our time?  The problem of fuzzy language—and of people becoming so thoroughly accustomed to it that they think it is meaningful—is discussed in the essay, “Academic Mythologies.”  

And by the by: the Ben-Day dots are named for their creator, Benjamin Day, hence the capital letters.

Carolyn Lanchner, “Roy Lichtenstein,” New York:  The Museum of Modern Art, 2009. This is a well-made little book that includes twelve of Lichtenstein’s paintings together with a number of thumbnails of works by other artists which provide comparisons with some aspects of what he has done.  It is useful in getting a quick view of what his art was like.  Lanchner was the curator of painting at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for more than thirty years.