PRINT February 1966

A Discussion

THE FOLLOWING DISCUSSION, MODERATED BY Mr. Bruce Glasser, was broadcast over radio station WBAI in New York in June, 1964. The transcript was edited for publication in September–October, 1965.

Bruce Glaser: Claes, how did you arrive at the kind of image you are involved with now? Did it evolve naturally from the things you were doing just before?

Claes Oldenburg: I was doing something that wasn’t quite as specific as what I’m doing now. Everything was there, but it was generalized and in the realm of imagination, let’s say. And, of course, an artist goes through a period where he develops his “feelers” and then he finds something to attach them to, and then the thing happens that becomes the thing that he wants to be or say.

So I had a lot of ideas about imaginary things and fantasies which I experimented with in drawings, sculptures and paintings, in every conceivable way I could. Through all this I was always attracted to city culture, because that’s the only culture I had. Then around 1959, under the influence of the novelist, Celine, and Dubuffet, I started to work with city materials and put my fantasy into specific forms. Then, under the influence of friends like Jim Dine and Roy Lichtenstein and Andy and all these people, the images became even more specific. But I can go back to my earlier work and find a toothpaste tube or a typewriter, or any of the things that appear in my present work, in more generalized forms.

Glaser: You mention that some of the other artists who work with Pop imagery had some effect on you. Yet it is often said by advocates of Pop art that it arose spontaneously and inevitably out of the contemporary milieu without each Pop artist having communication about, or even awareness of, what other Pop artists were doing. Are you suggesting something contrary to this?

Oldenburg: There is always a lot of communication between artists because the art world is a very small one and you can sense what other people are doing. Besides, America has a traditional interest in pop culture. In Chicago, where I spent a lot of time, people like June Leaf and George Cohen were working very close to a Pop medium in 1952. George Cohen used to go to the dime store and buy all the dolls he could find and other stuff like that. Even though he used them for his own personal image there has always been this tendency.

Also, in California, where I’ve spent some time, the tradition of getting involved with pop culture goes way back. But I don’t think the particular subject matter is as important as the attitude. It’s a deeper question than just subject matter.

Glaser: Roy, how did you come upon this imagery?

Roy Lichtenstein: I came upon it through what seems like a series of accidents. But I guess that maybe they weren’t completely accidental. Before I was doing this I was doing a kind of Abstract Expressionism, and before that I was doing things that had to do with the American scene. They were more Cubist and I used early American paintings by Remington and Charles Wilson Peale as subject matter.

But I had about a three year period, just preceding this, in which I was doing only abstract work. At that time I began putting hidden comic images into those paintings, such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny. At the same time I was drawing little Mickey Mouses and things for my children, and working from bubble gum wrappers, I remember specifically. Then it occurred to me to do one of these bubble gum wrappers, as is, large, just to see what it would look like. Now I think I started out more as an observer than as a painter, but, when I did one, about half way through the painting I got interested in it as a painting. So I started to go back to what I considered serious work because this thing was too strong for me. I began to realize that this was a more powerful thing than I had thought and it had interest.

Now, I can see that this wasn’t entirely accidental. I was aware of other things going on. I had seen Claes’ work and Jim Dine’s at the “New Forms, New Media” show (Martha Jackson Gallery, 1960), and I knew Johns, and so forth. But when I started the cartoons I don’t think that I related them to this, although I can see that the reason I felt them significant was partly because this kind of thing was in the air. There were people involved in it. And I knew Happenings. In fact, I knew Allan Kaprow who was teaching with me at Rutgers. Happenings used more whole and more American subject matter than the Abstract Expressionists used. Although I feel that what I am doing has almost nothing to do with environment, there is a kernel of thought in Happenings that is interesting to me.

Glaser: How did you get involved with Pop imagery, Andy?

Andy Warhol: I’m too high right now. Ask somebody else something else.

Glaser: When did you first see Andy’s work?

Lichtenstein: I saw Andy’s work at Leo Castelli’s about the same time I brought mine in, about the spring of 1961. And I hear that Leo had also seen Rosenquist within a few weeks. Of course, I was amazed to see Andy’s work because he was doing cartoons of Nancy and Dick Tracy and they were very similar to mine.

Glaser: Many critics of Pop art are antagonistic to your choice of subject, whether it be a comic strip or an advertisement, since they question the possibility of it having any philosophical content. Do you have any particular program or philosophy behind what you do?

Oldenburg: I don’t know, and I shouldn’t really talk about Pop art in general, but it seems to me that the subject matter is the least important thing. Pop imagery, as I understand it, if I can sever it from what I do, is a way of getting around a dilemma of painting and yet not painting. It is a way of bringing in an image that you didn’t create. It is a way of being impersonal. At least that is the solution that I see, and I am all for clear definitions.

I always felt, for example, that Andy was a purist kind of Pop artist in that sense. I thought that his box show was a very clear statement and I admire clear statements. And yet again, maybe Andy is not a purist in that sense. In art you could turn the question right around and the people that are most impersonal turn out to be the most personal. I mean, Andy keeps saying he is a machine and yet looking at him I can say that I never saw anybody look less like a machine in my life.

I think that the reaction to the painting of the last generation, which is generally believed to have been a highly subjective generation, is impersonality. So one tries to get oneself out of the painting.

Glaser: In connection with this I remember a show of yours at the Judson Street Gallery in 1959 which reflected your interest in Dubuffet, and that work clearly had a very personal touch. Your drawings and objects then were not made in the impersonal way that Roy uses a stencil or Andy a silk-screen.

Lichtenstein: But don’t you think we are oversimplifying things? We think the last generation, the Abstract Expressionists, were trying to reach into their subconscious, and more deeply than ever before, by doing away with subject matter. Probably very few of those people really got into their subconscious in a significant way although I certainly think the movement as a whole is a significant one. When we consider what is called Pop art––although I don’t think it is a very good idea to group everybody together and think we are all doing the same thing––we assume these artists are trying to get outside the work. Personally, I feel that in my own work I wanted to look programmed or impersonal but I don’t really believe I am being impersonal when I do it. And I don’t think you could do this. Cézanne said a lot about having to remove himself from his work. Now this is almost a lack of self consciousness and one would hardly call Cézanne’s work impersonal.

I think we tend to confuse the style of the finished work with the method through which it was done. We say that because a work looks involved, as though interaction is taking place, that significant interaction is really taking place. And when a work does not look involved, we think of it merely as the product of a stencil or as though it were the same comic strip from which it was copied. We are assuming similar things are identical and that the artist was not involved.

But the impersonal look is what I wanted to have. There are also many other qualities I wanted to have as an appearance. For example, I prefer that my work appear so literary that you can’t get to it as a work of art. It’s not that I’m interested in confounding people but I do this more as a problem for myself. My work looks as if it is thought out beforehand to such a degree that I don’t do anything but put the color on. But these are appearances and they are not what I really feel about it. I don’t think you can do a work of art and not really be involved in it.

Glaser: You are lessening the significance of appearances but appearances can hardly be dismissed as a reflection of your intentions.

Lichtenstein: But part of the intention of Pop art is to mask its intentions with humor.

Glaser: Another thing; one may say he wants to make a work of art that is not self conscious and that he doesn’t want to give the appearance of a self conscious work of art, but it doesn’t matter whether you use an industrial method or whether you use a method that emphasizes the artist’s hand. Whatever the case may be, we assume that if the artist has been working for any length of time he will acquire a certain lack of consciousness in the way he uses that particular method. As a result, consciousness, or the lack of it, becomes less of an issue.

Oldenburg: I think we are talking of impersonality as style. It’s true that every artist has a discipline of impersonality to enable him to become an artist in the first place, and these disciplines are traditional and well known—you know how to place yourself outside the work. But we are talking about making impersonality a style, which is what I think characterizes Pop art, as I understand it, in a pure sense.

I know that Roy does certain things to change his comic strips when he enlarges them, and yet it’s a matter of the degree. It’s something that the artist of the last generation, or for that matter of the past, would not have contemplated.

Lichtenstein: I think that’s true. I didn’t invent the image and they wanted to invent the image.

Oldenburg: That’s right. And Andy is the same way with his Brillo boxes. There is a degree of removal from actual boxes and they become an object that is not really a box. In a sense they are an illusion of a box and that places them in the realm of art.

Glaser: Would you say that this particular ambiguity is the unique contribution of Pop art or is it the subject matter?

Oldenburg: Subject matter is certainly a part of it. You never had commercial art apples, tomato cans or soup cans before. You may have had still life in general, but you never had still life that had been passed through the mass media. Here for the first time is an urban art which does not sentimentalize the urban image but uses it as it is found. That is something unusual. It may be one of the first times that art focuses on the objects that the human being has created or played with, rather than the human being. You have had city scenes in the past but never a focus on the objects the city displays.

Glaser: Is it fair to say that it is only to the subject matter that Pop art owes its distinction from other movements, and that there are relatively few new elements of plastic invention in your work?

Lichtenstein: I don’t know, because I don’t think one can see things like plastic invention when one is involved.

Oldenburg: If I didn’t think that what I was doing had something to do with enlarging the boundaries of art I wouldn’t go on doing it. I think, for example, the reason I have done a soft object is primarily to introduce a new way of pushing space around in a sculpture or painting. And the only reason I have taken up Happenings is because I wanted to experiment with total space or surrounding space. I don’t believe that anyone has ever used space before in the way Kaprow and others have been using it in Happenings. There are many ways to interpret a Happening, but one way is to use it as an extension of painting space. I used to paint but I found it too limiting so I gave up the limitations that painting has. Now I go in the other direction and violate the whole idea of painting space.

But the intention behind this is more important.

For example, you might ask what is the thing that has made me make cakes and pastries and all those other things. Then I would say that one reason has been to give a concrete statement to my fantasy. In other words, instead of painting it, to make it touchable, to translate the eye into the fingers. That has been the main motive in all my work. That’s why I make things soft that are hard and why I treat perspective the way I do, such as with the bedroom set, making an object that is a concrete statement of visual perspective. But I am not terribly interested in whether a thing is an ice cream cone or a pie or anything else. What I am interested in is that the equivalent of my fantasy exists outside of me, and that I can, by imitating the subject, make a different kind of work from what has existed before.

Glaser: What you say is very illuminating. How does this fit in with your intentions, Roy?

Lichtenstein: Well, I don’t think I am doing the same thing Claes is doing. I don’t feel that my space is anything but traditional, but then I view all space as traditional. I don’t dwell on the differences in viewing space in art history. For example, I can see the obvious difference between Renaissance and Cubist painting but I don’t think it matters. The illusion of three-dimensional space is not the basic issue in art. Although perspective as a scientific view of nature was the subject matter of Renaissance art, that perspective is still two-dimensional. And I think that what Cubism was about was that it does not make any difference, and they were restating it, making a formal statement about the nature of space, just as Cézanne had made another formal statement about the nature of space. So I would not want to be caught saying that I thought I was involved in some kind of spatial revolution. I am interested in putting a painting together in a traditional but not academic way. In other words, I am restating the idea of space because the form is different from the forms that preceded me.

I think, like Claes, I am interested in objectifying my fantasies and I am interested in the formal problem more than the subject matter. Once I have established what the subject matter is going to be I am not interested in it anymore, although I want it to come through with the immediate impact of the comics. Probably the formal content of Pop art differs from Cubism and Abstract Expressionism in that it doesn’t symbolize what the subject matter is about. It doesn’t symbolize its concern with form but rather leaves its subject matter raw.

Glaser: Claes, I want to find out a bit more about the nature of Dubuffet’s influence on you which we mentioned before. Your early work seemed to explore the same areas of primitive art and expression of the subconscious that he is interested in.

Oldenburg: Yes, that’s true, but mainly Dubuffet is interesting because of his use of material. In fact, that is one way to view the history of art, in terms of material. For example, because my material is different from paint and canvas, or marble or bronze, it demands different images and it produces different results. To make my paint more concrete, to make it come out, I used plaster under it. When that didn’t satisfy me I translated the plaster into vinyl which enabled me to push it around. The fact that I wanted to see something flying in the wind made me make a piece of clothing, or the fact that I wanted to make something flow made me make an ice cream cone.

Glaser: I think it may even be fair to say that Dubuffet’s work is one of the main precedents for Pop art insofar as he was interested in banal and discredited images. And as you say, he worked with common or strange materials such as dirt and tar, or butterfly wings, to create his new imagery.

Now, I would like to pick up something else we were talking about before, namely the possible implications of style in regard to Roy’s work. I have had the feeling in looking at some of your paintings that they have more affinities with certain current styles of abstract art than with other kinds of Pop art. Your clearer, direct image, with its hard lines and its strong impact relate you to artists such as Al Held, Kenneth Noland or Jack Youngerman. Because of these connections, discounting subject matter, I wondered whether you might be involved in some of the same stylistic explorations they are.

Lichtenstein: Yes, I think my work is different from theirs and no doubt you think so too, but I also think there is a similarity. I am interested in many of these things, such as showing a similarity between cartooning and certain artists. For example, when I do things like explosions they are really kinds of abstractions. I did a composition book in which the background was a bit like Pollock, or Youngerman. Then I also have done the Picasso and Mondrians, which were obviously direct things, but they are quite different in their meaning than the other less obviously related analogies to abstract painting. I like to show analogies in this way in painting and I think of them as abstract painting when I do it. Perhaps that is where the deeper similarity lies, in that once I am involved with the painting I think of it as an abstraction. Half the time they are upside down, anyway, when I work.

Warhol: Do you do like Claes does with vinyl ketchup and french-fried potatoes?

Lichtenstein: Yes, it’s a part of what you do, to make something that reminds you of something else.

Oldenburg: This is something I wonder about. I know I make parodies on artists, as with the vinyl ketchup forms which have a lot of resemblance to Arp, but why? I wonder why we want to level these things. Is it part of the humbling process? Maybe it is because I have always been bothered by distinctions—that this is good and this is bad and this is better, and so on. I am especially bothered by the distinction between commercial and fine art, or between fine painting and accidental effects. I think we have made a deliberate attempt to explore this area, along with its comical overtones. But still the motives are not too clear to me as to why I do this.

Lichtenstein: Nor with me either, nor even why I say I do it.

Oldenburg: I don’t want to use this idea as an instrument of ambition or facetiousness or anything like that. I want it to become work. But I am never quite sure why I am doing it.

Glaser: There is a question in my mind as to whether much of the subject matter of Pop art is actually satirical. I have felt so many times that the subject matter and the technique are, indeed, an endorsement of the sources of Pop imagery. It is certainly true that there are some satirical elements in this work, but apparently that doesn’t concern you too much. I wonder then, whether you are not saying that you really like this banal imagery.

Lichtenstein: I do like aspects of it.

Oldenburg: If it was just a satirical thing there wouldn’t be any problem. Then we would know why we were doing these things. But making a parody is not the same thing as a satire. Parody in the classical sense is simply a kind of imitation, something like a paraphrase. It is not necessarily making fun of anything, rather it puts the imitated work into a new context. So if I see an Arp and I put that Arp into the form of some ketchup, does that reduce the Arp or does it enlarge the ketchup, or does it make everything equal? I am talking about the form and not about your opinion of the form. The eye reveals the truth that the ketchup looks like an Arp. That’s the form the eye sees. You do not have to reach any conclusions about which is better. It is just a matter of form and material.

Lichtenstein: In the parody there is the implication of the perverse and I feel this in my own work even though I don’t mean it to be that, because I don’t dislike the work that I am parodying. The things that I have apparently parodied I actually admire and I really don’t know what the implication of that is.

Glaser: There is an ambiguity here too, part endorsement, part satire.

Oldenburg: Anyhow there is something very beautiful in putting art back into the present world and breaking down the barriers that have been erected for the appreciation of art. Nevertheless, I would like to say that I have a very high idea of art. I am still romantic about that. This process of humbling it is a testing of the definition of art. You reduce everything to the same level and then see what you get.

Lichtenstein: I am very interested in a thing that seems to happen in the visual arts more than anywhere else. There is the assumption by some people that similar things are identical. If you were to do the same thing in music and play something that sounded like a commercial, it would be very hard to vary it from the commercial or not have it immediately obvious that you are “arting” it somehow, or making it esthetic. Your only alternative would be to play this thing––whatever it is––the simple tune, as is. If you did anything to it, it would immediately be apparent, and this is not true in the visual arts. Maybe this is one reason why this sort of thing has not been done in music. Although it has had parallels in which commercial material is used it is always obviously transformed.

Glaser: You are saying that one of the purposes of the subject matter of Pop art is to confuse the spectator as to whether the advertisement, comic strip or movie magazine photograph is really what it seems to be.

Lichtenstein: This is true. In my own work there is a question about how much has been transformed. You will discover the subjects really are if you study them, but there is always the assumption that they are the same, only bigger.

Glaser: Well, even if there is a transformation, it is slight, and this has given rise to the objection that Pop art has encroached on and plundered the private pleasure of discovering interest in what are ordinarily mistaken as banal subjects. For example, if one privately enjoyed aspects of the comics, today one finds this pleasure made public in the galleries and museums.

Lichtenstein: I am crying.

Warhol: Comic strips now give credit to the artist. They say “art by.” Comic books didn’t give credit in the past.

Oldenburg: It would be interesting to study the effect of this on the average commercial artist who still remains a problem child. He is generally trying to figure out who he is and what he is doing. Maybe this will make them do more crazy things. I don’t know.

Warhol: Commercial artists are richer.

Glaser: That is a difference too. But I am more interested in the problems that come up in regard to your interest in popular imagery. For example, with you Claes, if at one time you saw in this material the possibility of exploring some kind of fantastic world, what you actually have done is to take the world of popular imagery and use it to a point where it is now becoming commonplace in museums and seen and talked about by cultured people, by critics and collectors. Your imagery no longer has any clear relationship to the public that the original popular image had, and the implication of this is that you may, in fact, have abandoned a very vital connection with a very large, but visually naive public.

Oldenburg: We did not establish that my art had any clear relation to the public in the first place. I think the public has taken it for its own uses just as it takes everything you do for its own uses. You can’t legislate how the public is going to take your art.

Glaser: You did say that you were still interested in the idea of high art?

Oldenburg: I am interested in distinguishing the artist as a creator from certain other people. If I make an image that looks very much like a commercial image I only do it to emphasize my art and the arbitrary act of the artist who can bring it into relief somehow. The original image is no longer functional. None of my things have ever been functional. You can’t eat my food. You can’t put on my clothes. You can’t sit in my chairs.

Glaser: Traditional art is like that too. You can’t eat a still life.

Oldenburg: But they haven’t been so physical, nor so close to you so that they looked as if you could eat them, or put them on or sit in them.

Warhol: But with your bedroom set you can sleep in it.

Oldenburg: You can sleep in it on my terms. But to get back to the idea of high art, I believe there is such a profession as being an artist and there are rules for this, but it is very hard to arrive at these rules.

Glaser: What is your feeling about the audience that reacts to Pop art? Did you ever think that with such imagery you might be able to reach a larger audience or do you want the same traditional art audience?

Lichtenstein: When you are painting you don’t think of the audience but I might have an idea of how an audience would see these paintings. However, I don’t think that Pop art is a way of reaching larger groups of people.

Glaser: Some commentators, having noticed the greater popularity and reception of Pop art, have said that this is so because it is representational rather than abstract.

Lichtenstein: I don’t think Pop has found any greater acceptance than the work of the generation preceding.

Oldenburg: There is a sad, ironic element here which almost makes me unhappy. I have done a lot of touring in this country and abroad for Pop shows and Happenings, deliberately, to learn how people feel about this outside of New York. There is a disillusionment that follows. When you come to a town they think you are going to be something like the Ringling Brothers. They expect you to bring coke bottles and eggs and that they are going to eat it and like it, and so on. But then, when they find that you are using different things you begin to grate on them.

Warhol: Yes, but the wrong people come, I think.

Oldenburg: But I hate to disillusion anybody, and you find people becoming disillusioned because it turns out to be just the same old thing––Art.

Glaser: Andy, what do you mean by the wrong people coming?

Warhol: The young people who know about it will be the people who are more intelligent and know about art. But the people who don’t know about art would like it better because it is what they know. They just don’t think about it. It looks like something they know and see every day.

Oldenburg: I think it would be great if you had an art that could appeal to everybody.

Warhol: But the people who really like art don’t like the art now, while the people who don’t know about art like what we are doing.

Glaser: Then you do believe that the public is more receptive to Pop art than to Abstract Expressionism?

Warhol: Yes. I think everybody who likes abstract art doesn’t like this art and they are all the intelligent and marvelous people. If the Pop artists like abstract art it is because they know about art.

Glaser: The criticism of Pop art has been that it reflects a growing tendency toward neo-conservatism that is apparent in certain areas of American life. On the most superficial level, reference is made to its turning away from abstraction and back to the figure. But on a more serious level, objections are raised about what seems to be the negation of humane qualities which the more liberal segments of our society, rightly or wrongly claim as their special preserve. Superficially, one can point to the fact that you use industrial processes in making your work and deny the presence of the artist’s hand. There is also Andy’s statement, “I wish I were a machine.”

Lichtenstein: This is apolitical. For that matter, how could you hook up abstraction with liberal thinking? Probably most artists may be more liberal politically. But Pop art doesn’t deal with politics, although you may interpret some of Andy’s paintings, such as those with the police dogs or the electric chairs, as liberal statements.

Oldenburg: Andy, I would like to know, when you do a painting with a subject matter such as this, how do you feel about it? In the act of setting it up the way you do, doesn’t that negate the subject matter? Aren’t you after the idea of the object speaking for itself? Do you feel that when you are repeating it the way you do, that you are eliminating yourself as the person extracting a statement from it? When I see you repeat a race riot I am not so sure you have done a race riot. I don’t see it as a political statement but rather as an expression of indifference to your subject.

Warhol: It is indifference.

Glaser: Isn’t it significant that you chose that particular photograph rather than a thousand others?

Warhol: It just caught my eye.

Oldenburg: You didn’t deliberately choose it because it was a “hot” photograph?

Warhol: No.

Oldenburg: The choice of these “hot” subjects and the way they are used actually brings the cold attitude more into relief.

Glaser: Perhaps in dealing with feelings in such a way one may be exploring new areas of experience. In that case it would hardly be fair to characterize Pop art as neo-conservative. It might be more worthwhile to consider its liberating quality in that what is being done is completely new.