“Pop for the People” Celebrates Roy Lichtenstein’s Democratization of Art
Artwork: Roy Lichtenstein, Sunrise, 1965. Collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
“Everybody has called Pop Art ‘American’ painting, but it’s actually industrial painting,” Roy Lichtenstein (1923–1997) told G. R. Swenson during an interview for Art News 67 in 1963. “America was hit by industrialism and capitalism harder and sooner and its values see more askew…..I think the meaning of my work is that it’s industrial; it’s what all the world will soon become. Europe will be the same way, soon, so it [Pop Art] won’t be American; it will be universal.”
Lichtenstein understood that Pop Art’s broad appeal didn’t come just from the subject matter but from the construction itself. Creating art in the age of mechanical reproduction challenged the primacy of the “original,” while simultaneously democratizing the process of collecting art. Buoyed by a renaissance in printmaking, the ability to construct multiples changed the game, and Pop Art capitalized on this. Industrialization worked on the front and back ends, using both the content and the processes of modern day life as a means to expand the spaces art could reach.
In celebration, the Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, presents Pop for the People: Roy Lichtenstein in L.A. on view now through March 13, 2017. The exhibition coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of the prominent Los Angeles printing house, Gemini G.E.L., and features more than 20 Lichtenstein works printed by Gemini.
The works highlight how the artist and printmaker developed a new aesthetic that spoke to popular tastes, distinguishing itself as readily accessible during a period dominated by esoteric, intellectual, and alienating style of Abstract Expressionism. It was the perfect antidote for the American public, which had maintained an appreciation for the heroicization of the vernacular in art, whether Norman Rockwell or Frederick Remington.
But Pop Art went beyond the mythical realm; it dove deep into the disposable detritus of industrial life. Inspired by the comic strip, Lichtenstein took the lowly Ben-Day dots to elevated heights, honing in on their familiarity to pleasurable effect, understanding that it was not merely the subject matter but the way it was made manifest. Lichtenstein explained, “I take a cliche and try to organize its forms to make it monumental. The difference is often not great, but it is crucial.”
Licdhtenstein’s clichés include some of out most beloved images in pop culture, drawing upon a youthful attachment to the visual form. Whether comics, advertisements, or children’s books, the artist was able to tape into a keenly held wonder that we enjoyed before we were taught the different between high and low art.
“I’m interested in what would normally be considered the worst aspects of commercial art. I think it’s the tension between what seems to be so rigid and cliched and the fact that art really can’t be this way,” Lichtenstein revealed, deftly subverting the hierarchy with his life’s work. In doing so, he catapulted straight to the top of the art world, making his art available in a wide array of forms including paper plates, clothing, and shopping bags.
As a piece de resistance, the exhibition includes a three-dimensional recreation of Lichtenstein’s 1992 painting, Bedroom at Arles, based on a series by the same name by Vincent van Gogh. Created as a life-size installation, visitors can walk through the work, fully inhabiting this surreal netherworld where high and low converge once more.
Though Lichtenstein believed, “I’m not really sure what social message my art carries, if any. And I don’t really want it to carry one. I’m not interested in the subject matter to try to teach society anything, or to try to better our world in any way,” he was in denial the influence of his work. Though an artist may not wish to contribute a message, it is simply unavoidable.
Despite his best efforts to be apolitical, he was in fact a populist who gave back. As he understood, Pop Art went worldwide and in doing so, it made art accessible and relatable. In honing in on the industrialization of life and celebrating this in his work, Lichtenstein answered the age-old question. “What is art?” and told the people in no uncertain terms: art can be anything that speaks to your heart.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.