Roy Lichtenstein – Pop Art and a Traditional Education

I’ve mentioned before how the Daily Telegraph tends to over-review art exhibitions. Last Saturday there was a preview of the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum, which I discussed in ‘What is Art?‘ On Tuesday Richard Dorment reviewed the exhibition and in today’s Seven magazine it was Alistair Smart’s turn.

Last week Lucy Davies visited Roy Lichtenstein’s studio. Yesterday there was an interview with Roy Lichenstein’s ex-girlfriend Letty Eisenhauer (sorry, no link found) and today there was an article by Harry Mount headed “Classical training that made a Pop genius“. And the retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern doesn’t even open until 21st February so we’ve at least a couple of reviews to look forward to.

Lichtenstein exhbition banner, Tate Modern

Just to explain my problem from another angle, I found out today via my newsletter, which I get by email, there is an exhibition called “Movement and Gravity: Bacon and Rodin In Dialogue” at Ordovas in London. While clearly not a major exhibition compared with the Lichtenstein, not a word about it in the Telegraph!

An Ordovas employee walks between works by Auguste Rodin and Francis Bacon

Harry Mount’s article, mentioned above, did shed some interesting light on Roy Lichtenstein, firstly about the importance of training in art:

“Pop Art – the name was conferred on the work of Lichtenstein, Warhol and their contemporaries in 1962 – was the father of today’s modern art: of Damien Hirst’s spot paintings and Jeff Koons’s balloon animals. But the father was vastly more skilful and witty than his offspring.

“Lichtenstein, born in 1923 to a prosperous estate agent on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, had the sort of art education that has disappeared in the Western world. From the age of 16 to 26, he learnt anatomical drawing, Renaissance techniques, botany, art history, mechanical drawing, portraiture, design, watercolour, oil and mural painting.

“In the early pictures at the Tate, few of these talents are advertised, it’s true. In the late Fifties, he went through a voguish, derivative phase of abstract expressionism: all play-school patches and scrawls in lurid colours. But, when he painted his first Pop Art picture in 1961 – Look Mickey, with Mickey Mouse standing on a dock while Donald Duck hooks a fish – he could call on all the years of tuition.

Roy Lichtenstein Look Mickey 1961

“His best work is an understated distillation of those techniques he had learnt: flat backgrounds and heavy black outlines around sections of primary colour and blocks of dots. But the important thing is, he had a memory bank of skills he could draw from. Artists such as Koons, Hirst and Tracey Emin – brought up in an age when tuition in skills had been eviscerated from art schools – have no manual talent to draw on, depending on assistants and shock ideas for their effect. When Hirst and Emin try to draw, the results are inadequate.”

Mount then went on to discuss Lichtenstein’s technique using dots:

“His great painting innovation was the imitation of the dots used in the three-colour printing process. The use of black dots of varying sizes to produce grey and half-tone images had been pioneered in 1850s printing. In 1879, Benjamin Day introduced colour dots – the so-called Benday process – that was rapidly taken up for mass-produced images in newspapers, books and comics.

“Lichtenstein – who taught at a commercial art school in Cleveland in the Fifties – brilliantly worked out that the cheap, roughening, mass-produced effect of Benday dots could be reconfigured by delicate hand-painting to produce beautiful high art.

“He worked away at the dot effect throughout his life. He began with a dog-grooming brush dipped in oil paint, moving on to a thin, small strip of perforated aluminium. He then rubbed pencil over a page with a textured surface beneath, before graduating to a large metal screen with staggered rows of circles, manufactured by the Beckley Perforating Company of Garwood, New Jersey.”

Mount concluded with:

“Not that the artists behind those comics weren’t deeply talented, either. Lichtenstein himself said: “The things that I have apparently parodied, I actually admire.”

“The original sources of Pop Art – the commercial art in Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans, as well as Walt Disney’s cartoons and the strips in DC Comics – were themselves beautiful. When a skilled artist like Roy Lichtenstein turns up and adapts and distils that art, it becomes even more beautiful. When an untrained artist uses her limited gifts on an un-beautiful object, such as, say, an unmade bed, the result will not be uplifting.”

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I'm a printmaker based in the North West of England, living in Bolton and printing at Hot Bed Press in Salford. Please visit my website
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1 Response to Roy Lichtenstein – Pop Art and a Traditional Education

  1. marvellous accolade for traditional training

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