Sunday, December 4, 2011


The fine art world and the world of comics converged in controversy recently when this painting by pop art icon Roy LIchtenstein sold for $43 million dollars. Sold by Christie's, it was a record high price for a Lichtenstein. His best known works are existing comic book or comic strip panels that he would enlarge on canvas, usually replicating even the small printing "Benday" dots on a grander scale. Here is the painting that sold...

Coincidentally, the source material for Lichtenstein's painting also recently sold, in an eBay auction. It was the original art for a Sunday page for the comic strip Steve Roper and Mike Nomad. The strip is dated August 6, 1961, with art by William Overgard, who I wrote about here for his short stint as a Caniff "ghost" artist and as artist of a Steve Canyon parody called Steve Crevice. The dialogue is by Allen Saunders, a writer better known for his decades writing "Mary Worth." The auction price? $431.

If you don't know the name Roy Lichtenstein, you know his work. The famous artist of the Pop Art movement is known for his recreations/adaptations of comic book panels on canvas. The worm has turned on Lichtenstein in recent years, seen less as an innovator with a unique point of view and more as a thief and swipe artist. Crediting the true artists of Lichtenstein's work has been the mission of David Barsalou. His goal is to link every Lichtenstein comic panel painting with its original source. You can view these on Barsalou's comprehensive website, Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein. Barsalou not only has the original "Nomad" comic panel on his site, he owns the original, as he told ArtInfo writer Judd Tully in this article, which highlights the disparity between how the fine art world views Lichtenstein and his "inspiration."

Here are a couple of different panels for comparison. The first, a panel from the cover of All-American Men of War #89 (2/1962) by artist Jerry Grandenetti, and the second is "Jet Pilot", a 1962 drawing by Lichtenstein, later made into a painting. Author Isabelle Deveaux certainly prefers "Jet Pilot": "Lichtenstein's reworking of the original panel on which the present drawing is based underscores his interest in formal concerns over narrative ones...he changed the orientation of the image from vertical to horizontal."1 See the differences? No tear in the air hose, a change in the bullet hole pattern of the canopy, and more smoke (what Deveaux calls "clouds"). These alterations "contribute to a more unified and harmonious composition."2 In other words, Jerry, you suck because your drawing didn't have "classical pyramidal construction" and Roy's did. So, if you copy a work and make some minor changes, then it's your work. Sounds more like the Rob Granito theory of art.

I enjoyed this one very much. The Lichtenstein copy (inset) shares many elements of the drawing by Joe Kubert, but he did not try to copy the linework. Apparently, when faced with aping one of the greatest artists to ever pick up a pen, he reverts to his own amateurish cartoon style.

This theory holds up with "Mr. Bellamy", a a 1961 painting that has been traced by both Barsalou and Lichtenstein scholars to Milton Caniff, though it looks nothing like Caniff art. According to one scholar, Lichtenstein did his best not to ape Caniff, finding it "counterproductive to impose his own freehand personality with the brush over the ineradicable personality that was already there."3 In other words, Lichtenstein had a enough trouble copying William Overgard, so it was beyond him to copy the master that Overgard was already following.

So, thief or artist? The debate goes unresolved. Just recently, comics journalist Rich Johnston called Lichtenstein's work a transformative artistic act. I agree part way with him, then go thief on the rest. I think he had an interesting concept that went too far. I think after he'd done a few Disney characters, he realized he was going to get in trouble. Why not, then, anonymous characters from Romance and War comics (notice it's not Superman and Galactus he's drawing). If he had done a few, then he's a guy who's saying something new. To do it again and again and again, I think, earns him the reputation as a fraud.

I'll leave you with a Lichtenstein that was not from a comic panel. It may not be my taste, or even comprehensible, but at least it's original.Brushstroke Head I, 1987, Painted and patinated bronze

Thanks to comic strip enthusiast D.D. Degg for breaking this story.
Thanks to David Barsalou for his invaluable site, Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein.

1,2Dervaux, Isabelle, "Lichtenstein: The Black and White Drawings, 1961-1968," The Morgan Library and Museum, 2010.
3Hickey, Dave, "Roy Lichtenstein : brushstrokes : four decades", Mitchell-Inees & Nash, 2002.


Randy Reynaldo said...

I don't want to necessarily defend Lichtenstein, but like Warhol, I think his intent was to turn what many considered lowbrow art that many people (including the publishers and many of the artists themselves) considered disposable junk into fine/high art. I presume this is what Rich meant when he referred to it a "transformative artistic act."

Getting people to pay a lot of money for the piece -- even the original $450 -- would seem to me to be part of the transformation of the work from low to high art.

Matt Tauber said...

Lichtenstein said his goal was to take that moment of high emotion in the single panel, then reproduce it almost in a technical/mechanical way by blowing it up. I agree with Johnston up to a point. It becomes a question of volume for me, that this what he is synonymous with/praised for/remembered for...and it's not even really his art.

Let's keep comics a low art form if we can. Caniff originals are expensive enough as it is!