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Tag Archives: Roy Lichtenstein

Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Ever heard of them? That’s what I thought. Let’s get right into it:

Text in art till the mid-late 50’s had at best been an element in a larger composition, never quite the central aspect of the work. Duchamp fiddled about with the use of text for the occasional goof, but these goofs took some explaining. Ono, Ruscha, On Kawara and a host of others changed all that, using text as the literal medium/object of the work such that the idea of what art might become was forever changed. Not bad, eh?

But even with this revolution underway there remained an inherent mistrust of the use of images and language in tandem. Art had accepted single words (Ruscha), brief sentences (Ono) and the occasional amalgamation falling somewhere inbetween (Indiana), but what about work that pointed to something a bit more complex, yet harkening back to something far more sinister?

Before we dive into all that, let’s look again at those crazy images kids of the 40’s and 50’s had been hammered with:

AtomicWar0101More-doctors-smoke-Camels-than-any-other-cigaretteGay novel 1960's   Booby trap

War, domesticity, cultural correctness and fear. Do this and you’ll survive. Do that and you’ll die. There’s no room for ambiguity in this equation, no nuance and certainly no %&#@ questioning of the Almighty Authority lest you be labeled a pervert, communist, intellectual, snob, square, Beat or Red. Happy Days was bullshit.

fonzie_henry_winkler_happy_days

So now instead of rebelling against those messages, Warhol appropriated the most banal example he could find (Campbell’s Soup Can) and Lichtenstein picked up the escapist imagery of comic books that kids of multiple generations turned to as an entertaining alternative to the pressures of growing up, aka: the constant bombardment of cultural propaganda (Whaam!). Freaking radical, sure, but a radical use of text in art? More so a necessary requirement, which is the real innovation here.

Here’s how it works:

Warhol’s use of text in the Campbell’s Soup Can is an essential identifying aspect of the art, but it isn’t the fundamental point of the art, though granted there’s no Campbell’s without Campbell’s. Warhol painted a mass-produced can of soup. The can requires text. Thus text is used to faithfully represent the can. Further, Warhol’s use of text doesn’t really signify the use of text in the same way Ono, Ruscha or Kawara used it. It’s akin to how Picasso or Schwitters used it, as a collage element (written by someone else) essential to the piece they were creating. The central aspect and end result, to my way of thinking, is that it’s a modern day still life, a winking reflection of the times. Or, better yet, a portrait. 

Warhol Campbell's Soup Can 1964

Lichtenstein’s use of text is essentially identical. That it has an aesthetically pleasing Pop form is a real bonus, making is more commercially accessible than, say, Lawrence Weiner. More importantly, both text and image are appropriated, turning the artist, via the use of low brow imagery, into a high brow critic of culture. The use of text + image has been sterilized, offering something harmlessly fluffy in return. That’s a smart bit of work, actually, allowing text to crawl back into bed with image without the child it bears telling you that you’re doomed. I imagine it had to be a massive relief, really, for all those former kids trudging home from their endless 9-5’s with briefcase and Fedoras, wives prepping TV dinners in their suburban homes with 2.5 kids begging for attention, seeing Drowning Girl in Leo Castelli and laughing hysterically all the way home.

Roy_Lichtenstein_Drowning_Girl

Which perhaps at some point leads to Christopher Wool’s Apocalypse Now (or Tom Waits’ Franks Wild Years), but we’ll get to that soon enough. In the meantime a preview!

Christopher Wool Apocalypse Now

So, big picture, text-art wise, from the end of WWII thru the 1950’s it was generally pretty quiet, no? In terms of iconic high text-art imagery, that’s basically true (we’ll get to Johns, Rauschenberg and Fluxus soon enough). However, that got me to thinking. The 1960’s produced an unparalleled explosion of text-based work that continues unabated. In fact there’s an argument to be made that it’s now impossible to tell the difference between text art, advertising and modern kitsch, but that comes later. Here, the question is: What fueled that explosion? I’m not a historian, and I haven’t read the psychoanalytic breakdown’s of each artist’s personal narrative, but a few things occur to me as I look at imagery of the 1950’s:

  1. World War II was just yesterday
  2. There was no time to mentally decompress before
  3. Being told exactly what to look like, what to be excited about, how to live your life
  4. You’re about to die horribly
  5. Go buy something

And don’t get me started on Jazz, literature, integration, expansion of the middle class or the revolutionary youth-centric Rock and Roll. Everything we took for granted prior to WW2 had flipped and much of it for the better. We were an entire nation of Old Boys’ Networks and what the Old Boys took for granted, women as property, elections to rig, Negros to keep down and all decent white fellows wore hats to work and smoked pipes on the weekend, well, images of guard dogs defending segregation, Emmit Till, women’s rights, a burgeoning nuclear nightmare and youth exposed to television and constant, ever more insidious war began to seriously challenge the Old Boys’ grip on things.

Which is where art comes in. I gotta hand it to the Abstract Expressionists, they really made a name for themselves and created some insanely great art, but they were younger versions of more traditional Old Guard artists looking for acclaim, like the many ‘ists’ that came before them. Here’s a nice pic:

abstract expressionists

And yet, as American culture began to freak out and express itself in a bazillion new ways, one small New York-based art club wasn’t nearly enough, nevermind how exceptionally well-dressed they might have been. Something else had to happen, and duh of course it did.

Which is where I started to think about 1960’s text art and what came before it. Specifically, the deluge of text-based propaganda, advertising and comics that young 60’s artists would have absorbed as kids. And whoa wow hello – what schizophrenic messages they were receiving!

As very young kids, having lived thru World War 2, they got this:

Food is a Weapon

Wanted for Murder

Happy Jap

Venereal Disease Covers The Earth

Then as adolescents they got this:

Atomic War Comic

Teenage Dope Slaves

Captain America

Comic America Under Communism

And as they grew into young adulthood, these were their social models:

Lucky Strike Do You Inhale

Ad Coffee Spanking

Ad Campbells Pea Soup

Ad Televison Benefits Children

And somehow managed to balance this:

Nuc Attack Home Split Image

and this

1950s-3d-movies

not to mention

Korean War Headlines

while again this was happening:

Bomb Drill

And eventually this:

civil-rights-march

Which is how it totally makes sense that they ended up producing art that not only reflected the absurdist culture they grew up in, but also used those same images and messages as ground for their work. And some felt the freedom to dispense with imagery altogether and go straight for the message, and permanent hats off to them because once that happened there was no going back. Plus it also got very, very flat, which was very, very interesting.

1960’s next!