PRINT Summer 2011


REVIEWING THE 1961 PITTSBURGH TRIENNIAL in the pages of Art International, William Rubin lamented the shallow ubiquity of gestural abstraction within both the show and contemporary painting more broadly. “The dominant avant-garde mode of painting in the late fifties,” he wrote, “(substantially the same throughout the world though known by different and confusing names, e.g., Abstract Expressionism, Tachism, etc.) seems to have allowed for less variety, less inventiveness, and less individual profile than any other major style in the history of modern art.”¹ No wonder, then, that when Roy Lichtenstein opened his inaugural Leo Castelli Gallery exhibition the following February, the abstract canvases he had recently made—built from broad bands of viscous color applied with a paint-soaked rag, and produced through the fall of 1960—were nowhere to be found. Instead, as is well known, Lichtenstein presented such canonical Pop pictures as The Kiss, Blam, The Refrigerator, and Washing Machine, all of which were adamantly free of gesture and abstraction alike.

In the standard narrative of Lichtenstein’s career, these works (and their maker’s abandonment of the abstract canvases that preceded them) are usually seen as an announcement of painting’s reified condition circa 1961: By mimicking the form and iconography of advertisements and comic book panels, Lichtenstein’s Pop work demonstrated the medium’s unholy alliance with such schematized and commodified images. Faced with the inevitable (and market-driven) descent into cliché that Rubin described—a descent fueled by an art world newly filled with eager collectors of contemporary work—wasn’t even the most advanced New York painter just one step removed from the sophisticated adman, a regular Don Draper?

Lichtenstein and his contemporaries faced what David Joselit has termed “the reification trap”: the fact that painting, in its combination of “maximum prestige with maximum convenience of display,” is inevitably and intimately linked to the commodity, and thus compels artists to work through the “enduring critical dead end” of reflecting on and responding to this reified state.² Or, in Lichtenstein’s case, to apparently embrace it with open arms—for is there any more identifiable artistic trademark than Lichtenstein’s Benday dot, as effective a logo as any Madison Avenue executive could dream up?

In essence, the “reification trap” Joselit describes is an updated version of Meyer Schapiro’s diagnosis of contemporary art’s fate in 1957, as formulated in his moving essay “Recent Abstract Painting.” Schapiro writes:

If painting and sculpture provide the most tangible works of art and bring us closer to the activity of the artist, their concreteness exposes them, more than the other arts, to dangerous corruption. The successful work of painting or sculpture is a unique commodity of high market value. Paintings are perhaps the most costly man-made objects in the world. . . . Painting is the domain of culture in which the contradiction between the professed ideals and the actuality is most obvious and often becomes tragic.³

With disarming innocence, Schapiro located the means of challenging this tragic condition in the painter’s singular pursuit of his or her aesthetic vision, “[the cultivation of] his own garden as the only secure field in the violence and uncertainties of our time.”⁴ Joselit, working in our interconnected present, has posed the radically different principle of “transitivity”—the invention of painterly forms and structures that can serve to demonstrate art objects’ circulation within dynamic, never stable networks—as the primary means of escaping the reification trap’s seemingly unbreakable hold today.

Yet far earlier, in the 1960s, Lichtenstein was already working between these two exit strategies posed by Schapiro and Joselit, probing the limits and possibilities of originality while simultaneously exploring the transitive operation of all art objects. Rather than simply parroting commercial imperatives or abjectly announcing painting’s inevitable commodification, Lichtenstein’s early Pop practice represents an attempt both to internalize painting’s reified state and to forge new cathective possibilities within this condition, possibilities rooted in the historical, social, and libidinal networks in which all works of art are made and circulate. Nowhere is this project more evident than in Lichtenstein’s engagement with gestural abstraction—beginning, in disguised form, at his February 1962 Castelli show.

Take Washing Machine. As fundamental a Pop canvas as any Lichtenstein produced, it is nevertheless haunted by the ghost of those abstract works missing from the Castelli exhibition. For what else does the image show us but a metaphor for painting itself? And not just painting in general but painting as practiced and debated at just that historical moment. Its central hand positioned, in a favorite Lichtensteinian trope, to suggest that of the artist before his or her canvas, Washing Machine depicts the infusion of viscous chroma into an otherwise colorless field, one whose oval form mimics that of Lichtenstein’s own Benday dots, screenprintlike grids of which overlay the entire image. Within this central elliptical chasm, furthermore, the artist has depicted a trio of spermatozoic hands that echo the detergent-dispensing grasp above, all surrounding an agitator whose phallic form looms over and anchors the washtub’s churning depths. In this laconic and industrially streamlined work, in other words, Lichtenstein has managed not just to compress references to his own painting and that of contemporary gestural abstraction, but to visualize the competing critical positions—of painting both domesticated and virile, mechanically regimented and unconsciously automatic, industrially flattened and oceanically deep—through which the medium was understood at the time. Left unclear, of course, is just where Lichtenstein himself stands within this dynamic: He is equally emblematized by the work’s central washtub-cum–Benday dot and the robotic claw that looms above, the latter signaling both industrial uniformity and the very painterly agency that Washing Machine, while seemingly banishing, in fact takes as its structuring concern.

If the gestative digits swimming in Lichtenstein’s washtub look vaguely familiar, it’s because they are. Metastasized several times over, they appear as the flowing hair of Lichtenstein’s series of “sophisticated women” of 1963–65. This transformation is initiated in Drowning Girl, 1963—in which Washing Machine’s two primary germinal hands, emerging from the newer work’s own churning depths, have metamorphosed into perfectly coiffed curls—and is most fully realized in Happy Tears, 1964, in which all of the 1961 painting’s hands, detergent-dispensing claw as well as swirling spermatozoa, are united in a single staring figure that all but steps forth from the canvas itself. Or rather, that all but steps forth as the canvas itself: For Lichtenstein’s solitary women in fact build on Washing Machine’s submerged painterly metaphors to literally incarnate his primary medium. These women, that is, embody painting itself, perpetually present but just out of reach, with the artist standing before them as both agent and object of desire. Just look at Happy Tears: Not only is this figure’s Benday-dotted face perfectly equated with that of the canvas surface across which it is layered, but its surrounding hair oozes down from three of the painting’s edges to recall, unmistakably, brushed-on pigment (the viscous flow of which is echoed by her excretory tears), declaring the painting’s primary libidinal channel to be that between Lichtenstein and his image, and medium, itself. It’s thus no surprise that Lichtenstein spoke of his women’s hair as one of the few passages in his painting where he could be “completely inventive”: where he felt free to explore the intricacies of painterly form and touch without apology.⁵

For those skeptical of this all-too-brief reading, let me put forward two other images to continue our story, that of how Lichtenstein used painting’s condition of apparently total reification as a means to both explore and renew the medium’s possibilities. First, consider his 1963 study for his monumental mural at the 1964 Flushing Meadows World’s Fair, commissioned as one of ten works for the exterior of the New York State Pavilion by its architect, Philip Johnson. Here we see the metaphor of woman-as-painting all but directly declared, the artist extending the age-old conceit of painting-as-window (the singular focus of his painting Curtains of the previous year) so that it serves as merely a stage for the emergence of the woman within. Second, look at the very first of Lichtenstein’s Brushstroke paintings, the aptly named Brushstrokes of 1965. In this work, as Michael Lobel has established, Lichtenstein initiates his seminal series by borrowing from a comic-book tale of a tormented painter, one compelled to cover over a finished portrait composition with violently applied strokes after the depicted face begins to speak and incessantly berate him as a failure; the gestural mark functions in the narrative as a way for the artist-protagonist to both cancel out his taunting picture and, in essence, announce defeat.⁶ In each case—Lichtenstein’s design for his World’s Fair mural and his selection of a foundational image for one of his most significant series—a solitary figure stares out as an explicit embodiment of Lichtenstein’s primary medium. And in both, the gestural stroke plays a central role: If Lichtenstein’s women’s hair is born from the gestative hands of Washing Machine, their locks come to maturity, finally, in the depicted gestural marks filling his Brushstroke works, all of which appear as so many clippings lifted from the floor of these women’s obviously shared stylist. Painterly gesture, in other words, moves in Lichtenstein’s early-’60s work from ambivalent reference (in Washing Machine) to declarative object of desire (in the “sophisticated women”) to iconoclastic device (in Brushstrokes) to, finally, a system of reified forms (in the multiple Brushstroke paintings that follow).

If gesture was for Rubin all but dead by 1961, then, Lichtenstein took fully four years to process its passing—and held on, all the while, to the gestural stroke as a site of both erotic and aesthetic investment. Indeed, his early-’60s explorations of abstraction stretch far beyond the few images I’ve touched on here, and concern not just gesture alone. For instance, Lichtenstein proclaimed to Bruce Glaser in 1964 that “when I do things like explosions they are really kinds of abstractions,” a statement that reshapes the way we see his combat paintings of the period.⁷ Consider the monumental Whaam!, 1963: Depicting an exaggerated reach into and chromatic explosion across pictorial space (once again from the artist’s point of view), the painting is nothing if not a diagrammatic narrative of the “at-onceness,” the overwhelming experience of disembodied and expansive color, that Clement Greenberg was then describing as the defining quality of advanced modernist abstraction. Such engagement with Greenberg’s ideas is rife in Lichtenstein’s work of the period, culminating in the paintings and sculptures of isolated explosions he began making in 1965. Brilliantly terse, these works are portraits of the petrification of Greenbergian precepts—their packaging and circulation within the cliché-driven aesthetic economy diagnosed by Rubin at the decade’s outset.

The Brushstrokes are Lichtenstein’s most direct recognition of this economy and his place within it. Like his extraordinary and little-known Drips of 1966, the series splays out the abstract mark as if on a coroner’s table to declare its vacancy. In doing so, the Brushstrokes operate in tandem with nearly all of Lichtenstein’s mid- to late-’60s work in seizing upon the condition of reification not as a trap but as a field of possibility. His discovery of Rowlux, for example—a plastic material constructed of minute parabolic lenses that create moiré patterns, suggesting both flickering movement and amorphous depth—enabled him, as Lichtenstein described it, to make landscapes with “the kind of sky that would stop you as you went by a store.”⁸ But it also, and most crucially, provided a tool with which to match the visual suppleness of Color Field abstraction from precisely within the explicit domain of industrialization and commercialization. Likewise, in the Art Deco–inspired canvases and sculptures of his Modern works, Lichtenstein takes cliché itself as his medium. He seizes Art Deco’s own devaluation and repetition of advanced avant-garde form, its reduction of Post-Impressionist pictorial strategies into ornamental kitsch, in order to enact a double negation, staging a clichéd redeployment of cliché as a critical and inventive act (or, as Leo Steinberg astutely put it in an April 1962 MoMA symposium on Pop, as a means to avoid being a “non-conformist like everybody else”).⁹ This operation extends to the specifics of display: While the Modern paintings’ modular format and immensity of scale suggest wallpaper, the series’ sculptures, replete with velvet ropes and brass banisters, are positioned to restrict and guide their viewers, serving equally as disciplining barriers and overdesigned architectural bric-a-brac.

Though we’ve barely glanced past 1970, the sustained depth and complexity of Lichtenstein’s abstract engagements should be clear enough—as should their relevance to contemporary practice. For definitive of all the works I’ve discussed here is Joselit’s notion of transitivity, evident in Lichtenstein’s play with historical, critical, architectural, commercial, and libidinal networks, and in all cases utilizing abstraction’s—indeed, painting’s—apparently total reification as an engine and not an ending. At the root of this project, as the repeated erotics of Lichtenstein’s images make clear, is desire: the desire, quite simply, to paint, to put marks on canvas that are not swallowed up by, but actively work within, the networks they engage, that actually say something. This is not so far from the stuttering yet infinitely, indeed longingly, multiplicitous kinds of hue and incident in Wade Guyton’s ink-jet markings, nor from Gerhard Richter’s declaration that, for all of painting’s “total idiocy,” he continues to work in the medium precisely to “say something, express some kind of yearning [. . . .] for lost qualities, for a better world; for the opposite of misery and hopelessness.”¹⁰ Lichtenstein’s terms may never be so grand as Richter’s, nor his marks so explicitly mechanical as Guyton’s, but his sly and sustained analysis of painting’s forms and structures helped establish the ground on which both continue to work—and in which the tangled history of the gestural mark, five decades after Rubin’s admonitions, continues its course.

Graham Bader's Hall of Mirrors: Roy Lichtenstein and The Face of Painting in the 1960s was published last year by MIT Press.


1. William Rubin, “The International Style: Notes on the Pittsburgh Triennial,” Art International 5, no. 9 (Nov. 20, 1961): 26.

2. See David Joselit, “Painting Beside Itself,” October 130 (Fall 2009): 125–34.

3. Meyer Schapiro, “Recent Abstract Painting,” in Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries, Selected Papers (New York: George Braziller, 1978), p. 224.

4. Ibid., p. 226.

5. For Lichtenstein’s comment, see Richard Brown Baker, interview with Roy Lichtenstein (1963), Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, tape 1, side 2, p. 87.

6. See Michael Lobel, Image Duplicator: Roy Lichtenstein and the Emergence of Pop Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), pp. 164ff.

7. Lichtenstein as cited in Bruce Glaser, “Oldenburg, Lichtenstein, Warhol: A Discussion,” Artforum 4, no. 6 (Feb. 1966): 23. (Though first published in 1966, Glaser’s interview was conducted in 1964.)

8. Lichtenstein to Alan Solomon in USA Artists: Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, dir. Lane Slate, WNET New York, 1966.

9. Leo Steinberg as cited in “A Symposium on Pop Art,” Arts Magazine 37, no. 7 (Apr. 1963), reprinted in Pop Art: A Critical History, ed. Steven Henry Madoff (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), p. 80.

10. Gerhard Richter, “Notes, 1973,” in Gerhard Richter: Writings, 1961–2007, ed. Hans Ulrich Obrist and Dietmar Elger (New York: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2009), p. 70; and as cited in Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “An Interview with Gerhard Richter,” in Gerhard Richter: Paintings, ed. Dietmar Elger and Hans Ulrich Obrist (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1988), p. 25.