By blending high and low art, Roy Lichtenstein tested the contradictions at the heart of our ideas about art. He was labelled a heretic, but half a century later, we get the joke, finds SARAH CHURCHWELL
Roy Lichtenstein: from heresy to visionary
His work explores ideas of clichés and icons, the ersatz and the manufactured. In the beginning, cartoons and comic strips provided his source material, although he soon moved away from them. But he never abandoned his signature method, the Ben-Day dot (named after inventor Benjamin Day’s 1879 technique for reproducing printed images by using dots to recreate gradations of shading), ensuring that his work would remain as recognisable as it was quotable.
Lichtenstein’s paintings are far more technically demanding than it seems at first glance. His work was described by the critic Hal Foster as the “handmade readymade”: not industrially mechanised, but blending careful techniques of handwork (drawing, tracing, painting, emphasising brushstroke, line, and Ben-Day dot) with the reproduction and screening of found images. It is not art trouvé but art retrouvé: refashioned, recovered, reframed. And in the process, our simplistic distinctions between making and manufacturing begin to dissolve.
Like Marcel Duchamp before him, Lichtenstein was criticised for not producing original art but plagiarising the originals. Unlike Duchamp, however, Lichtenstein couldn’t even offer the avant-garde defence of aggressive “obscenity”: his work is resolutely unconfrontational, tonally serene, even when the subject matter (such as Drowning Girl or WHAAM!) is pain or violence. This led to persistent accusations of detachment, distance, a frigidity that some say makes his work hard to love. Conversely, others charge that Lichtenstein’s art is too lovable: too accessible, commercial, art “lite” for the merely acquisitive.
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Image: Detail of Blue Nude (1995): Litchenstein never abandoned his signature Ben-Day dots.