Tuesday, June 17, 2008

More on Lichtenstein and Sources


UPDATE: new link posted below to David Barsalou's Lichtenstein source panel site.

Today I had ten minutes to kill in a bookstore, and on the heels of the other day's post (immediately below this one) about Roberta Smith's breathless (and somewhat thoughtless) response to a Roy Lichtenstein show at Gagosian, I came across a Taschen book on Lichtenstein. I picked it up to review the treatment of sources.

Amid the prose and reproductions, I found one small thumbnail (in black and white, of course, despite the color reproductions throughout) of a source panel for Takka Takka, a painting from 1962. The comic source is substantially the same, with certain simplifications and adjustment of the text panel.

There is reference to the source panel in the essay, but there is no effort invested whatsoever in identifying where it appeared, who would have published it, or who the cartoonist was who produced it in the first place. It was as if the image had been dug up like a hunk of coal--a natural occurrence, not a cultural one. It was identified as a "comic."

Last year, I collaborated on an exhibition on the illustrator Al Parker which appeared at the Norman Rockwell Museum and also at the Kemper Museum on the campus of Washington University, where I teach. In the latter venue, the Parker show was up at the same time as a show titled Beauty and the Blonde, which aspired to deconstruct the image of the blonde in American culture. It was curated by Catharina Manchanda, and provided the expected cheeky "critiques" courtesy of Mel Ramos, Tom Wesselman, Warhol, and more meaningfully gendered work by Cindy Sherman, Lorna Simpson, and others. Of course Roy made an appearance, with Crying Girl, from 1963. All in all, it was satisfying show, if somewhat predictable.

The point of the anecdote is this: in the front room of the Blonde show, across from a copiously documented exhibition of midcentury women's magazine work, appeared a group of works from "popular culture," which in this usage seems akin to the above-mentioned coal vein in the Taschen book. Movie posters, calendar pin ups and other illustrated materials were used to set up and play off other works in the first room, particularly a Mel Ramos. Ramos and the artists were credited. But the pin up illustrators, poster designers, illustrators and cartoonists who generated the abundance of material in the room were not. It almost certainly never occurred to anybody to look them up, because ideologically speaking they don't exist as cultural producers. They merely represent the convergence of mass forces on our hero of sensation, l'artiste. For all the progressive noises made by high cultural actors of all sorts, it truly amazes me how dismissive the enterprise can be. We're all for "breaking down boundaries," between, you know, sculpture and painting.

As a critic and producer, some time ago I consciously chose to reposition myself in the realm of visual culture defined broadly, and sidestep the simultaneously elaborate and narrow problems of art. I'm happy to deal in artifacts and aesthetic attributes, as opposed to aesthetic objects and significantly more segregated cultural precincts.


After I got back from the bookstore, I rooted around some online and discovered, to my deep astonishment, that an art historian named David Barsalou has tracked down more than 140 original comic panels that Lichtenstein copied with slight modifications.

Barsalou's flickr page shows the originals with a small copy of Lichtenstein's image inset. For example, we learn that the famed BLAM is a copy of a Russell Heath comic panel from DC Comics All-American Men of War #89, published in February of 1962. The painting was produced in the same year.


Bravo to Barsalou for pursuing this material. A proper accounting of cultural practice would engage Heath and the original comic in a discussion of sorts with Lichtenstein and the painting. The anonymity of the source in art historical contexts should no longer be countenanced; subsequent editions of American Art surveys which feature Lichtenstein's work should also include documentation of the source work when it is known.

5 comments:

Dan Z. said...

After a scroll through of Barsalou's site it's amazing that in EVERY SINGLE CASE the original image is better than Lichtenstein's. Not just the drawings (obviously!), but even the stuff Roy is usually lauded for (composition, humor, impact, emphasis on mechanical color, etc.). He didn't make a single one more interesting in any way, even by accident.

Dan Z. said...

That came off harsh. I should add the disclaimer that I am a cartoonist myself and the truth is that I can't look at Lichtenstein painting without cringing on the basis of the terrible lettering alone.

DB Dowd said...

Dan, it is somewhat difficult to respond to this corpus of material and attendant critical practice in a way that does not seem harsh or at the very least exasperated. What is one to do in the face of such profound irony, or deep cunning? One shrugs it off, I guess, and secedes. (The best lack all conviction...)

John Hendrix said...

Really good thinking in these last two posts, red.

I guess Lichtenstien's fame could not have existed if they things he was making were his own drawings, good or bad. So then, are these critics continuing to celebrate contextual re-appropriation as a fresh idea?
Aren't these just artifacts to us post post-modernists?

I want to know how long it took Barsalou to do that book. He's probably read EVERY comic between 1940-1970.

Adrian said...

Someone should make an art book of Lichtenstiens with all the original work he stole from side by side with his. It should be sold on Lichtenstein's name yet all the money should go to the original artists and estates of the original artists and none should go to Lichtenstein. It would just be logical in a karmic sense(first and only time I'll ever write or say that). And since no legal action was ever taken against Lichtenstein I assume this would get away for the same reasons(if statute of limitations was not the reason). This would open up a whole can of worms that would destroy his unearned legacy.