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'The ironic Lichtenstein who takes soulful subjects and paints them with cool' By David Sylvester

This is a shortened version of an article published in American Vogue for September 1969


Some artists like to think they are working in the dark, others that they are firmly in control. The preference seems almost more a matter of generation than of individual temperament. Most of the artists whose styles were formed in the I940s subscribed to the idea that making art meant feeling one's way through unknown territory. Robert Motherwell spoke - as if wearing Whitman's beard - of the painting process as ' a voyaging into the night, one knows not where, on an unknown vessel', Giacometti began a poem with the line, 'Un aveugle avance la main dans la nuit', and the blind man groping in the dark was clearly the artist's image of himself. Art was the lonely journey of existentialist man, whether it resulted in large bold abstracts or in nervous, compressed human effigies, and this ideal of the journey was shared by a multitude of artists, abstract and figurative. This common ethical ideal led to a generally shared attribute of style: the way in which the work was made was more or less visible in the endproduct.

The typical art of the Sixties is as different from this as Colonel Borman's journey to the moon is from Levi-Strauss's journey into the tropics. It is carefully planned, tightly organised, precise in execution. It is technological (as in its use of silk-screen and spray-gun or as in sculpture ordered from the factory by telephone). It is also handsomely financed; and this is not incidental. The art of the Forties was an art of outsiders, its audience other outsiders. The art of the Sixties has a public and a publicity machine: it is soundly professional and socially acceptable. It is sure of itself and has an air of certainty and decision. The artist, like a good executive, makes up his mind what he will do and does it, or gets it done to his specifications.

Lichtenstein is one of those who make a point of painting in a quasi-machine-like way, following a predetermined course. At the same time, his images are based on mass-produced images which repeat certain standardised symbols or designs: ads and strip cartoons and manufactured ornaments. (They are mass-produced in two senses: millions of copies of a cartoon frame are printed; also, the way something is drawn in one frame repeats the way it is drawn in innumerable others.) Lichtenstein pointed out to me this connection between his way of working and his choice of image: '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 cliche and the fact that art really can't be this way. I think it's maybe the same kind of thing you find in Stella or in Noland where the image is very restricted. And I think that is what's interesting people these days: that, before you start painting the painting, you know exactly what it's going to look like - this kind of an image which is completely different from what we've been schooled in, where we just let ourselves interact with the elements as they happen. This high restrictive quality in art is what I'm interested in. And the cliche - the fact that an eye, an eyebrow, a nose is drawn a certain wav- is really the same kind of restriction which adds a tension to the painting.'

He evidently relishes the element of certainty, the knowing 'exactly what it's going to look like'. And the pictures themselves, hard and precise and cool, look as if they were about certainty. But they aren't about certainty - rather the opposite, as we shall see - and it's largely the interplay in them between certainty and uncertainty that makes them go on as they do being surprising though they have the look of an art that is not going to sustain its impact.

At a purely formal level, Lichtenstein is perfectly clear about his aims. He knows what he can add to the cartoon images that they haven't got. 'There's a sense of order which is lacking. There is a kind of order in them, there's a sort of composition, but it's a kind of a learned composition. It's a composition more to make it clear, to make it read and communicate, rather than it is a composition for the sake of unifying the elements. In other words, the normal aesthetic sensibility is usually lacking, and I think many people would think it was also lacking in my work. But this is a quality, of course, that I want to get into it.'

When I asked him in what ways he might alter the cliches to this end, one of his answers was: 'Sometimes I try to make it appear to be more of a cliche, to emphasise the cliche aspect of it, but at the same time to get a sense of its size, position, brightness and so forth as an aesthetic element in the painting. And they can both be done at once, as you can certainly do a portrait of someone and also make it art. In other words, you can be doing something besides pure art as you work.'

Along with this conviction that art doesn't have to be pure goes a belief that the artist may gain by not always indulging his own tastes, but by accepting certain norms that have not been created by himself. The thing that first attracted him to cartoon images was 'the fact that an eye would be drawn a certain way and that one would learn how to draw this eye and would draw it that way regardless of the consequences'.

The certainty evaporates as soon as Lichtenstein starts talking about the cliche's relevance to life, as against its usefulness to art. ~ithen I asked him, not too seriously, whether he liked girls who looked like the cliche girls he painted, he threvv- the ball back by saying- and this wasn't sophistry - that the kind he painted were 'really made up of black lines and red dots. I see it that abstractly, that it's very hard to fall for one of these creatures, to me, because they're not really reality to me. However, that doesn't mean that I don't have a cliched ideal, a fantasy ideal, of a woman that I would be interested in. But I think I have in mind what they should look like for other people.'

'Are you, by using subject-matter which is absurd, making your work say: "I am using subject-matter, I am not painting abstract pictures; at the same time, the subject-matter is absurd, so it doesn't really count"?'

'No. I think I'm really interested in what kind of an image the thing has and vrhat it really looks like as well as the formal aspect of it. Let it go at that. I'll just do it anyway. I'm interested in this kind of image in the same way as one would develop a classical form - an ideal head for instance.'

I've been concentrating on Lichtenstein's ladies and their gentlemen friends, although they were mostly painted five to eight years ago, because among all his images these are the ones that come closest to the bone in the matter of our response to his subjects: these cliches have the same marvellous blend of kitsch and allure as Hollywood musicals. And certainly the crucial problem in talking about Lichtenstein is the problem of how he deals with his subjectmatter and how it deals with us. His formal qualities are pretty obvious and scarcely need to be dwelt on.

But there is one of these that I would tend to single out, which is his mastery of scale. He will, say, take a school exercise-book, with marbled cardboard cover and stuck-on label, and blow it up to a height of nearly five feet, and by the nicest choice of scale in this enlargement will give us almost hallucinatory feelings about the relationship of our scale to that of a supposedly familiar object.

His most dramatic use of enlargement occurs in the blown-up brushstrokes of I965-66 which constitute, I think, his finest series. To draw what may be a crude distinction, Lichtenstein operates on two kinds of cliches: on the one hand, those in the field of mass communications, advertising, strip cartoons, travel posters and the decorative style of the Jazz Age; on the other hand, those in the field of fine art, beginning with Picasso's and Mondrian's. The brushstroke paintings evoke, of course, Abstract Expressionism - but with the difference that they don't actually resemble the work of any particular Abstract Expressionist, whereas the others are unmistakable parodies, 'like a five-and-dime store Picasso or Mondrian . . . a way of saying that Picasso is really a cartoonist and Mondrian is too, maybe'. The brushstrokes, as he says, aren't 'really so much of a parody of anyone's paintings, more an epitome or codifying of the brushstroke in itself'. The brushstrokes represented, indeed, look less like anything done by Kline or de Kooning or Motherwell than like the marks which anyone might make in daubing a wall with a house-painter's brush.

So it may be that we wouldn't relate Lichtenstein's pictures of brushstrokes to Abstract Expressionism if we hadn't already seen his take-offs of Picasso and Mondrian. Because w e know his ironic glosses on other art, w e see his meticulous imitations of slashing brushmarks as a joke about the Abstract Expressionist cult of heroic spontaneity - maybe remembering Rauschenberg's joke of doing a free gestural painting in the Abstract Expressionist manner and then producing a duplicate. But the basic irony is simply the notion of representing the appearance of any spontaneous daub with obvious deliberation and care.

What is marvellous about the irony is that Lichtenstein's carefully conceived and executed reconstruction of an explosively violent brushmark looks much more explosively violent than the real thing. Though ironical, this is not paradoxical. The explosiveness derives from the way the harsh colours are edged with black and by the sharpness of the shapes. But, as to sharpness, I personally feel that the violence derives above all from a metaphor which I always see in the shapes: teeth and other jagged tearing instruments. I asked Lichtenstein whether he meant to put them there. He answered that he didn't. 'I did notice that some of the edges of the brushstrokes looked like explosions and things, but I really wasn't thinking of any other imagery except the obvious.' Here for a change he is utterly decisive about what the paintings mean to him. And it turns out that something which for me is the most impressive feature of his most impressive paintings is something with which he is flatly unconcerned.

In the brushstrokes series, as in the cartoon images of love and war, Lichtenstein takes subjects with a high emotional charge and deals with them as commercial art would 'by a very removed method', as he puts it. 'It's really not so much that I really use that method but that it appears as though I've used it and as though the thing had been done by a committee.'

I feel that his best work is generally work in which there is this contradiction between cool in the treatment and soul in the subject-matter- as against the still lifes, the landscapes and the parodies of Jazz Age ornament. It is a contradiction that corresponds to one of our most needed mechanisms of defence: to joke about what we mind most about.

Lichtenstein's method of doing this is the inverse of JasperJohns's, the artist whose ironic use of common emblems showed the way to Lichtenstein and the other creators of Pop. Johns takes cool subjects and paints them with soul, or what looks like soul. Lichtenstein takes soulful subjects and paints them with cool, or what looks like cool.


Excerpted from David Sylvester's 'About Modern Art' 1997.