In this week's Newsweek – in the iPad and international editions only – I write (and speak, on video) about Roy Lichtenstein's career-spanning survey at the Art Institute of Chicago. I try to pull away from our usual concentration on the "fun" of his comic-book and pop-culture references, and emphasize his interest in the larger print-culture that continues to condition us.
His "BenDay" dots are my crucial evidence.
Lichtenstein’s printer's dots never help him render a real scene and its colors, as Benjamin Day, their 19th-century inventor, intended them to. They aren’t even true magnifications of the dot-field on a page in “Donald Duck” or “X-Men” – or, in this case, a nudie magazine. They float free of such specifics, as untethered symbols of a world derived from print. (They can also be unnerving, creating a dizzying optical dazzle that undermines the cheeriness we associate with this painter, and that maybe takes a dig at the power of print.)
Even in the series of comic-free paintings that riff on modern masters such as Picasso and Matisse, Lichtenstein’s dots tell us, as he himself often said, that his cover-versions always derived from reproductions, rather than from his predecessors’ original works. It’s all about acknowledging that, 99 per cent of the time, those originals live among us as printed, bedotted images. In our digital age, they are always ready to be "pinned" on a Pinterest page on the Web.
There’s even one case where Lichtenstein seems to give us a pure and original abstraction – a composition built from colored wedges and vectors that hark back to 1920s futurism – and yet it turns out that it was borrowed straight from a spacey background in a 1963 issue of DC Comic’s “The Flash.” In Lichtenstein’s pictorial universe, every new picture begins with the readymades already found in our visual culture. “That’s what I meant,” Marcel Duchamp is supposed to have said, on first seeing Lichtenstein’s work.
This makes Lichtenstein the godfather not just of Pop Art, but of later artists who might seem to have much less in common with him. Cindy Sherman’s life-as-movie approach to photography, and Richard Prince’s direct re-presentation of an ad man’s Marlborough Country, are also about showing us our world as seen through image-colored glasses. But whereas Lichtenstein, the pioneer, had to use dots and comic-book borrowings to sell us on this new idea, his descendants could just give us the images we’re swimming in, and trust us to recognize their Lichtensteinian weight.
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