PRINT March 1972

On Style: An Examination of Roy Lichtenstein’s Development

THE ART OF ROY LICHTENSTEIN sets up a situation in which style is subject matter and governed by the same rules of discourse as iconography. The subject matter of Blam at one level is war, but Lichtenstein has not invented his subject; he has taken it from an existing image in a comic book. The original has been considerably revised to arrive at Lichtenstein’s composition in which both plane and explosion radiate from a common center in the picture. However, through these changes he has not abandoned the recognizable style of the original, though with an important qualification. The outlines, the solid colors, and the simplifications of surface refer less to the particular drawing from which Blam is taken than to the comics generically. The source of Blam has a naturalistic open space and the objects in it can be seen together in an instant of time, though all are diverging. Lichtenstein, on the contrary, has arrested the action, not only by dispensing with narrative and with other panels, but by elaborate formalization, such as the play of ovals on the right set up by the jet intake, the cockpit, and the ejected cockpit cover. The linear pattern that he builds up does not de-comicize the image, however, because it resembles the comics as a style. Lichtenstein’s references are on two levels: to a specific drawing, which only he knew at the time of working, and to a general knowledge of comics style, a cliché that we all share. The construction of the picture took place in the former area but was perceived by the early audience wholly in the latter.

A knowledge of Lichtenstein’s sources1 reveals that the act of switching an image from one channel (printing) into another (painting) is fairly complex. It involves Lichtenstein’s view of style no less than his view of the mechanics of composition. In the Modern Paintings he devised new configurations less from quotations than by staying within the parameters of Art Déco. A style or a period look can be represented by a selection of representative features and this is what Lichtenstein has done, for both comics and Art Déco. Style, defined as the constant form of an artist or a group, can, at one end of the spectrum, be studied to indicate unique matters of personality, but it can also be quantified as an ordering device, as in sampling. This is a part of Lichtenstein’s central interest in the cliché, which has the virtue of being common property and highly legible. Alain Robbe-Grillet, taking an interview with Lichtenstein that he read as his starting point, paraphrased the artist as saying: “I have the feeling that these flat images conform far more to what really goes on inside our heads, than those false depths”2 of Lyrical Abstraction or Abstract Expressionism. The clichés of conceptualization like the clichés of style provide the artist with clear form. The notion of cliché as subject matter is not so radical; it was pursued by 19th-century genre painters and among those whose approval they earned was van Gogh. By using unknown collaborators, to whom he leaves the task of invention, regarded in art theory since the 16th century as the real test of an artist, Lichtenstein is free to do one of two things. He can either switch a comic strip into a fine art context or switch a work of art that belongs in one system of values to another set, as in his Rouen Cathedrals (Seen at Three Different Times of Day) after Monet. We expect iconography to enlighten us as to a picture’s meaning but at just this point Lichtenstein poses a problem of conversion. The annexing of existing sign systems by art brings a malicious ambiguity to bear on the ideas of expression and depth. Cliché takes the position of meaning. Diane Waldman in her monograph does not see it like this, however, to judge from her comment on “Dawning, a most obvious cliché of a landscape, and yet this too is among the most striking of his paintings.” Her relapse into polarizing “obvious cliché” and “striking painting” suggests, to say the least, pre-Pop habits of mind, surprising in a writer who is willing to assert with bland confidence and without qualification that Abstract Expressionism was “already exhausted” in the late ’50s.

Richard Morphet in his introduction to the Tate Gallery exhibition catalogue of Lichtenstein in 1968, stresses the interest of Lichtenstein in disjunct imagery in his early polyptychs, of which Live Ammo, 1962, is the liveliest. It begins on the left with a title, recalling comic book format, and the march of panels raises the expectation of narrative. In fact, temporal succession becomes simultaneity (“just then . . .”, to quote from panel II) or discontinuity. Two/thirds of one panel consists of a think-balloon of Theory of Games in the field and in another the unseen pilot of a rising vertical plane is laughing (“Ha, Ha, Ha”). In one panel we look along the barrel of a firing gun, identifying with the gunner’s viewpoint, and in another panel a soldier is being fired at from outside the canvas. The panels are united only as imagery of war and by Lichenstein’s decisions, but the conjunction is a lesson not to rely on subject matter as a source of meaning. Lichtenstein’s art that seemed all subject matter in the early ’60s, here, in fact, denies the spectator the cues to meaning.

Lichtenstein’s use of style as subject matter is an essential part of his personal work as well as characteristic of Pop art, by and large as an art of quotations, translations, imitations, double takes. A possible analogy would be to 19th-century historicism when the traditional custom of respectful quotation from the classics expanded to embrace all periods and countries as sources. There is a comparable abundance in the assimilation of a wide range of sign systems in Pop art and the devising of original connections between the disjunct materials. Pop art, as a whole, belongs to a line of 20th-century art movements that includes Futurism, Dada, Constructivism, and Purism; call it briefly, l’Esprit Nouveau. This is Apollinaire’s term to refer to the early 20th-century’s optimistic view of itself, as the successor of the exhausted preceding century, and the artists in these four movements believed in an extra-artistic subject outside the picture and to all of them it was urban. A connection exists between Pop art and l’Esprit Nouveau based on the forming of links between modernity as an idea of thought and the fact of daily life. Henri Lefebvre argues for “the simultaneous appearance of these two inter-dependent ‘realities’, the Quotidian and the Modern.”3 That which is “humble and solid” and that which is “novel, brilliant, paradoxical” are conjoined in Pop art as they were, in other ways, by the earlier movements just cited.

Lichtenstein’s The Refrigerator, 1962, is derived from a domestic package. He has dropped the verbal matter and retained the image of the housewife which he condenses from a naturalistic spatial sprawl into a tight form. This is a less effectual image of action, but what he is after are linear analogues of hand and cloth, face and hair, and the legibility of commercial style compensates for the Décorative arabesque. It is a good example of an original art work pretending to be a copy. It is necessary to see this image in relation to l’Esprit Nouveau, though this term originally referred more to production victories rather than to consumption routines. The communications industry has grown at an extraordinary rate since the 1920s and the influence of its visual and verbal material is as clear on Pop painting as it is in the magazines, though not the art, of the earlier artists. The heroic content remains, in a sense, in the war comics, but mass-produced domestic objects, reformed by technology, are a legitimate extension of the original pro-industrial art movements, out of, say, Gris’ and Léger’s paintings of siphons.

Diane Waldman’s account of early Pop art in relation to Lichtenstein is muddled. She remarks the term’s English origin and its first sense of referring to the mass media. Then “when transplanted to the US the term ‘Pop Art’ was adapted to the art itself, thereby refuting its original intention.” The original intention of the term was to expand the scope of esthetics beyond painting and sculpture to include temporary and discredited artifacts of all kinds. This idea was not so much “refuted” as worked out within the terms of subject matter in painting. Lichtenstein is the representative artist of this aspect of Pop art in which “low” subject collides with “high” art content. What Mrs. Waldman had in mind probably was to keep Pop art American as she chides the term for failing to take account of “the tradition of realism in American art.” However, Lichtenstein is not a realist: the fact that many of the objects he depicts are common or that his sources are popular does not amount to a definition of realist painting. He is not discovering unsuspected wonders or conferring dignity on the overlooked: on the contrary, his subjects are known beforehand to the spectator and depend on being recognized as existing signs. The original source which was a signifier becomes the signified in the painting and the original referent, though clearly present, is transformed by indirection. Nicolas Calas has referred to “the paradoxical effect of making methodology the subject matter of art, an idea most eloquently demonstrated in Lichtenstein’s use of the brushstroke as the content of a new image.”4 The process of paint ing as an image in a painting and switches of significative functions are not a matter of realism, not even of trompe l’oeil.

Emphases do not fall in the right places in Lichtenstein’s development as Mrs. Waldman tells it. Consider her treatment of two paintings of 1962, Blam and Art. The latter consists of the word “art” in white capital letters with red shadows on a yellow ground. For some reason this slight picture absorbs her, though it is not in the mainline of Lichtenstein’s work and is not consequential in relation to some other artist’s work of that moment. Lichtenstein, in a new interview with Mrs. Waldman printed in her book, records that he “had ideas for long series of words,” but was not sufficiently interested to paint them. Never the less she scrutinizes Art and ignores Blam (it was excluded from the retrospective exhibition that she organized at the Guggenheim Museum in 1969), though it is the most ambitious large work he had done at that date. The stiff or hesitant handling that marks the early work, in which he appears to have relied on the brute presence of unexpected quotations, are resolved to produce a coherent composition, far in advance of, the better known but weak Engagement Ring, 1961, and The Kiss, 1962, both of which are the same size as Blam, 68 by 80 inches. Lichtenstein’s two paintings of compositional diagrams after Cézanne also date from 1962 and are the first of his fine art as opposed to mass media quotations in the new style. Erle Loran who made the original schema, wrote in Artforum against Lichtenstein’s version.5 The pictures are certainly of consequence of their reference to Cézanne, and to Lichtenstein’s later work, but Mrs. Waldman lets them lie. Neither the existence of contemporary documents nor intimations of the governing themes of an artist’s work seem to stir her interest. She admires Lichtenstein very much (she compares him to Mondrian), but her attention to his work is fragmentary and forgetful. She comes closest to his “single object paintings of 1961–62” in an otherwise desultory text. The bibliography, incidentally, is a shorter version of the unread listing in the Guggenheim catalogue, with errors perpetuated and omissions uncorrected (Robbe-Grillet’s piece is missing, for instance).

In place of the kind of attention that produces information she resorts to a battery of embarrassing compliments, a few of which I shall quote in the hope of reminding us all to stop writing this way. “For Lichtenstein to have been able to challenge illusion, it was altogether necessary for him to have a profound grasp of that tradition.” (Implied: he is master of Renaissance art and science but has gone beyond all that.) “Lichtenstein brilliantly accomplishes the transition from the left-hand panel to the center one [of Preparedness] by means of a blue quarter circle and the use of a prominent sequence of diagonals.” (Fact: perfectly routine manipulation of compositional clichés.) She describes Whaam as “an amazing display of the artist’s skill in reconciling the purely Décorative with the most straightforward image.” (Question: what is the opposition between the Décorative and straightforward bits in a painting derived from a source as stylized and legible as a comic book?)

At one point Mrs. Waldman sensibly compares Andy Warhol and Lichtenstein on the basis of their single object paintings, but then enlarges the comparison to include the simulated “mechanical” look of their paintings. There are too many differences really: Warhol printed photographic images in his paintings, but they look handdone, as they are, because of their casual inking. Thus, in a roundabout way, touch is preserved by Warhol, though it is pseudoautographic. Lichtenstein, on the other hand, used to patch up his early arrays of dots by hand to ensure their regular appearance: a roller and a screen without correction produced too varied an impression. Thus in the comparison of these artists we need to remember that they may be parallel but they are, in effect, traveling in opposite directions on different sides of the same road. Warhol really was mechanized at a cottage-industry level and the output was appropriately rugged in craft, whereas Lichtenstein’s commercial look was an image obtained by handbased operations, as traditional as his idea of composition. According to Mrs. Waldman, “the fundamental difference between the two occurred when Warhol originated the concept of the multiple repetitive image while Lichtenstein actually preferred a singular holistic image.” The point is almost right, except that Lichtenstein’s image is not what is generally understood as holistic. The word refers to Barnett Newman’s paintings or early Frank Stella’s in which there are no separable parts, so that the painting is perceived as an indivisible configuration. This is not what Lichtenstein’s composition is like, as Mrs. Waldman notices elsewhere in her text. He believes in composition as the balance of contrasting but compatible forms, in which size, direction, and color can be related, in which warm colors compensate for cool, in which curves ameliorate right angles, and in which details enliven large spaces. His work until the mid-’60s is constructed on these principles and his accommodation of far-out image-source with academic picture-building is an engaging aspect of Pop art’s play with ambiguous sign systems. It is not, as formalist critics presumed, a sign of weakness but of doubt operating equally corrosively in two directions.

Lichtenstein, up to this point, is basically a draftsman who uses color to fill in and jazz up linear armatures. His recorded liking for Picasso and Miró as caricaturists6, which I think is accurate, accords perfectly with this view of him. He had a brusque, serviceable way of working which gave him the freedom to construct logical compositions, but which did not exclude the possibility of indifference and self-cancellation of the iconography. In 1964 he began his landscapes in which the linear structure indispensable to the comic was gradually dismantled. it is not that Lichtenstein abandoned references to extra-artistic object, but that he changed his subject to one that would permit him to shift the basic of his art without giving up the dimension of skeptical allusion. Obviously landscape provided the license and he image.he enlarged the dots in his screen and overlapped one screen with another to make generalized evocation of horizontal space in terms of surface and color, not boundary as in Untitled, 1965. This period, with its very uneven level of work, looks like a time of strain thought Mrs. Waldman’s monograph does not provide any background about what was going on. it looks like a struggle to retain the public resonance of clichés while given up the linear forms in which visual commonplace are represented by the landscapes was decisive for without turning linear mode of painting.

The Modern Paintings, begun in 1966, despite their iconographical expansion, are a prolongation of his set form, a linear structure with color added. The wit of the early pieces in the series was lost as work progressed; the paintings become heavy and ornate themselves and not just double takes on heavy ornament. The landscapes, on the contrary, or rather the formal possibilities latent in them, seem to have engaged Lichtenstein more significantly and this leads, if I read him right, to the Monet paraphrases begun in 1968 on the basis of his knowledge of the preparations for John Coplans’ “Serial Imagery” exhibition in the summer of 1968. In the prints and paintings derived from Monet’s haystack and Rouen Cathedral series he is coping with the problem of color in relation to preexisting systems. The multiple coruscation of Monet’s colors are reduced to a combination of regularly perforated screens, with dilated dots, applied in overlays of one color at a time. Mrs. Waldman informs us that these paintings were carried out by assistants following Lichtenstein’s instructions. These works have not quite been accepted, perhaps because of their shared authorship, but it is a fact that they are the best work he has done for some years. In them he is dealing seriously with color in the absence of line and really extending his wit into a new area. Lichtenstein told John Coplans that “there is something humorous about doing a sunset in a solidified way, especially the rays, because a sunset has little or no specific form.”7 And there is something “humorous” in switching Monet’s paintings to a flat, hard, systematic graphic technique of production. What is sensuous and momentary in Monet becomes quantified as color separations. The dots fall in the zigzagging interstices of the facade. The dots are large, as firm and clear as drops of mercury, though where the superimposed screens overlap they generate splintered star forms. I don’t want to present too much justification for it, but Lichtenstein’s hardening of Monet has a historical precedent. Monet’s haystacks influenced Mondrian to do a haystack series of his own and subsequently Mondrian developed a plus-and-minus drawing code derived from, a church facade. This form of notation by systematic small points is in the background of Lichtenstein’s own use of points or dots. In a way, the pictures are like a neo-lmpressionist revision of Monet, done not by Seurat but by Signac with his large, blunt pointillism. This sequence is not in the least esoteric as both Mondrian’s plus-and-minus period and Monet’s series are very familiar elements in recent art talk, so that the presence of cliché should not be overlooked in these paintings.

The mirrors, like the Monet paraphrases, stress screens of dots rather than outline drawing, but in terms of gradation rather than overlapping and tonally rather than coloristically. These studies of highlights are physically unconvincing but conceptually exact, in that a known convention for reflections is being employed as much for its artificiality as for its likeness to a visual phenomenon. The unpaintable subject of mirrors leads to the series of recent drawings and paintings called Entablatures, in which architectural Décorations are presented the same size as the original moldings, though flat and in diagrammatic chiaroscuro. Egg and dart, Creek key, and other motifs mass-produced in the 19th century for the ornamentation of family houses, not as they originated in the classical past, are Lichtenstein’s theme. It is another discredited area. Although he has returned to drawing in this series, it is without the fullness of incident that marked his early linearism. Instead of an art based on boundaries Lichtenstein has moved to an art predicated on surface and allover or continuous animation. Hence my strong expectation that it is in the area of color that his immediate future may lie. The chronological thrust of his art as a whole, from crowded to spare, from tangled to empty, which is caricatured by my choice of illustrations in the present article, supports this view of his development.

The production of the book is subject to a Lichtensteinean irony. It was printed in Italy and appears to have been begun as a book of reproductions to be printed in line blocks, each block delivering one color without tonal gradation. The choice of this cheap printing method might have been suggested by Lichtenstein’s simplified way of painting, but it is a technique that allows for no internal delicacy of color printing and it is usually scorned as a way of printing “high” art books. At some point, the Italian printer seems to have mended his ways, partly. From being a cheap and cheerful picture book of line blocks it became a sophisticated picture book of line blocks, and as a matter of fact, the effect is not bad. Special inks seem to have been mixed, many colors printed, registration is good, and a gravure screen used to print the area of the picture surface which with pure line blocks would have remained unindicated. The pages are very punchy, more so than most of the original paintings. What has happened is that the paintings have been taken a long way back towards the graphic originals from which so many of them came. Hence the pictures are less illustrations of paintings than kicky graphic versions of paintings which are versions of graphics. The effect is that the vitality of Lichtenstein’s sources is emphasized and the intelligence of his translation procedures is blunted.

Lawrence Alloway



1. For Lichtenstein’s sources see Albert Boime, “Roy Lichtenstein and the Comic Strip,” Art Journal, 2, 1968–69, pp. 155–60. Additional examples in Canadian Art, 1, 1966, p. 13; Lucy Lippard, Pop Art, New York, 1966, p. 13; and Studio International, 896, 1968, p. 23.

2. Alain Robbe-Grillet in an interview with Paul Schwarz, “Anti-Humanism in Art,” Studio International, 899, 1968, pp. 168–69.

3. Henri Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World, trans. by Sacha Rabinovitch, New York, 1971, p. 24.

4. Nicolas and Ilena Calas, Icons and Images of the ’60s, New York, 1971, p. 18.

5. Erle Loran, “Cézanne and Lichtenstein: Problems of ‘Transformation,’” Artforum, November, 1963, pp. 34–35.

6. John Coplans, Roy Lichtenstein, Pasadena Art Museum, 1967, p. 16.

7. Ibid., p. 15.