PRINT January 1998


Roy Lichtenstein

ROY AND I HAD these little talks whenever I got shaky about dying. No one else I knew seemed so certain about death’s vacant aftermath, and seemed so certain without bravado or dread. He had no fear of death, he said. You were just gone and out. As for any aftermath, Roy was going to leave his soul to science.

So much for what I’d already known. In this arena (and perhaps this was the only one), there were no consolations forthcoming from Roy. Why did I bother to ask? Just to hear him repeat how unfearful he was, I suppose. For the tonic effect it might have on me.

Hemingway said that one of the sad things about growing old was living on after your generation had died off. I didn’t understand that, reading it when I was still a kid. I thought you just made new friends when the old ones vanished. Roy was my older friend who never seemed older and who, in the organizing of his life, had, incidentally and inadvertently, found a way never to die. Those of us about him, in our vast unserenity, would one day die, but never Roy. He was too ready and available and indifferent to Death, and thus poor game, Death seeking those in flight and fear or embracing those who sought it. Roy would have rolled his eyes at this thought, finding my anthropomorphic idea of Death absurd and in line with all other such romantic silliness—the spirit, the oceanic, the transcendent, the immortal soul. All those impalpable, unverifiable, nonempirical notions, the stuff of a world increasingly given to crystal gazing, magic, and the nonrational.

All of it absurd, except for Beauty. A word Roy rarely used, understanding full well its indefiniteness and relativity, but in whose existence he believed, ascribing our ability to perceive and sense it to some universal neuro-bio-chemical feature in the organism, to some (perhaps one day) discoverable event cooking in the brain.

Beauty, once in a while, needed reformation, to keep the mind’s circuits from going numb. As when the great, passionate art of the Abstract Expressionists—Roy loved Pollock and de Kooning—began to grow stale in the later practice of artists for whom Abstract Expressionism was academic, mere ritual and rhetoric. He showed us in his famous brushstroke paintings how easily manufactured was the energy of accident and the spontaneous gesture. Roy wasn’t opposed to passion in art, only to its facsimile. Even in his own.

At a pivotal and transforming moment, he abandoned abstract painting, his accomplished early works that at times had the power to remind us of their archetypes. He came to that pass to reinvent and revivify through shock the way we, and he, could again look at painting—could see beauty with a new face.

We have come to accept and admire what he did, forgetting all the battles and the scorn directed at his art from critics and philistines for his desecration of what was held elevated and noble in art. All that elevation and the critical language that went to justifying it had become bunk in his eyes, a hollow exhortation to inflate a painted corpse. Roy’s use of benday dots, the seeming mechanization and industrial look,implying that the artist’s hand with its unique personality was a romantic artifact, the sheer kitsch of the early comic strip subject matter all spelled the antithesis of art as it had been understood.

No small irony when applied to an artist who believed himself in the swim of Western art—and later on, in the same ambiguous and ironic and loving way, of Chinese art—and to certain aesthetic principles found in all great art. Ironic, too, that what was once seen as Roy’s aesthetic demolishments may be now seen as his traditionalism. And what once appeared to us as crass and vulgar emerged, at the end, as beautiful. Our circuitry rewired itself in harmony with his art.

Ineffable, in any case, Beauty. He would have insisted on that much, even while applying himself, in the most ordinary, diligent way, and with the most quiet modesty, to the organizing of marks on a surface—as he would have said—to creating it for us. Except that he grew older—so imperceptibly that he appeared as youthful at seventy-three as he did at forty—and that he grew more and more famous, he was the same man when he died, with the same working and living habits as when I first met him in 1965.

I once brought him a copy of Donald Barthelme’s collection of stories, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, thinking he would find interesting the story “The Joker’s Greatest Triumph,” based on the adventures of Batman and Robin, and perhaps see in it his own influence on the writer. He was too polite then, as ever later, to let me know directly how mistaken I was to assume anything but the most superficial resemblance between the written tale and the visual image. It wasn’t the comic strip as subject that interested Roy, but the occasion it afforded him to reformulate all the mysterious but governable issues of art that for us in the West began long ago in those caves in France.

The same issues and same aesthetic principles would take Roy from his Pop iconography and carry him through his re-creations of Picasso and Monet and Van Gogh and would have taken him, as he once proposed to me, to consider a series of Cézanne’s bathers, had he lived a few months—few years—longer. We all thought he would go on forever, his Nile flowing over with paintings and drawings and sculptures and prints long after we all had vanished from him.

Go on forever, because he was always at the still point, the fixed hub to the world spinning about him. The great irony of Roy’s life was the disparity between the hugeness of his fame and the humility of his life. I don’t think he owned a suit, though he did have a tux, which he trotted out on deluxe occasions—his retrospectives, mostly—and which had the effect of making him look like an uncomfortable eagle. He did not disdain fame or wealth, both coming to him in middle age and thus allowing him to move into their precincts without illusions; they were not his ends but the means by which to allow him an elegant and orderly life, routines of work being his idea of nirvana.

After chronicling the mundane facts of birth and schooling and the landmarks of his popular ascent, Roy’s biographer would go numb at relating the details of his daily life. Roy was down at the studio at ten, where his assistants and secretary were already at work. By one, he was at Florent for lunch with his crew and friends. An exciting lunch was when Roy reported some new event in astrophysics he had just read about; he was entranced by quasars and neutrinos, quarks and black holes, the small and the very large and the world and its mystifying doings. The universe, he said, was beginning to seem more and more what the Hindus called Maya, a veil of illusion. “But I wouldn’t draw any conclusions from that idea,” Roy said, smiling, knowing that I would love to make a leap to faith on the flimsiest of hopes.

On the way to his studio after lunch one afternoon, Roy turned to me and asked: “What if one day I were to wake up in a nursing home and find out all that has happened to me in the past thirty years was just a dream?” Before I could answer, he added, “There would have been no difference, would there?”

Except that there would have been no work left us, I should have said. And we would have nothing of him and his sweetness. Ironically, Roy, who was so intelligently skeptical of all things metaphysical, may well have left us at moments wondering whether, in his gentle quietude, he himself was not the Buddha. “What a dopey idea,” I can hear him say.