The Power of the Brushstroke

Lichtenstein’s obsession with the minute details of painting proves there’s more craft to Pop Art than you might think.


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In 1949 Life magazine published a short feature on the artist Jackson Pollock where the editors famously asked: “Is this the greatest living American painter?” The headline was both genuine and rhetorical. The article was sparked by one of Pollock’s consummate supporters, the art critic Clement Greenberg, who, by the late 1940s was the vocal arbiter of modernism and, more acutely, the promoter of Abstract Expressionism. In the profile photograph, the 37-year-old Pollock stands in front of one is his long horizontal paintings, the chaos of colors and splatters stretching the length of the article. He is dressed in his distinctive overalls, his face expressionless as he crossing his arms and leans slightly back, his posture holding a mixture of private emotions and manly reserve. While the article never prescribes an answer to the question (the editors did received over five hundred letters from readers with their own answers, mostly affirming their alarm and distain for his canvases), it does declare that Pollock “has burst forth as the shinning new phenomenon of American art.”


15 years later, the magazine would ask that question again about Roy Lichtenstein, only in a slightly different way. In its profile of the artist it asked: “Is this the worst artist in America?” This playful echo of the Pollock profile set the contrast between the two artists, but also christened the increasing interest in Lichtenstein’s work. The profile described Lichtenstein’s painting process, showing readers how he transformed cartoon images into paintings. It demonstrated his particular methods in achieving his distinctive benday dots, that repetitive surface that gives his canvases a mechanical sense of texture and depth. Contrasting to Pollock’s full body portrait in front of his canvas, Lichtenstein presents a more reserved image. He sits in a high-back wicker chair, one of his romance paintings propped in front of him, shielding his body from us. His head, slightly tilted back, rests above the canvas, a shy smile on his face as he gazes down at the camera looking almost regal.

This difference in the artist’s image reflected a deeper difference in the styles of art as well. Lichtenstein’s Pop Art was, in many respects, a much more controlled and quiet form compared to the loud canvases of the Abstract Expressionists, their works filled with emotional forces, undefined and unlimited. Pop Art offered the hum of the machine. Think of Andy Warhol’s famous mantra, “I want to be a machine.” Abstract Expressionism rested on the power of the brush stroke, the texture of paint, and the serendipitous surface of the canvas. Pop artists instead turned the brushstroke into line and dots, creating a constant repetition of surfaces, questioning the authentic power of any one imagine. If Abstract Expressionism was about the artist’s emotions, Pop Art was about the cool distance of the artist. In defining this contrast, French theorist Roland Barthes wrote in the late 1970s that the Pop artist “has no depth: he is merely the surface of his pictures, no signified, no intention, anywhere.”

Featuring over 120 works from three decades of the Lichtenstein’s career, this retrospective of his work, which has travelled from Chicago, to Washington, DC, and is set to end in Paris this summer, presents a vision of Pop Art that is more depth than surface, more craft than machine-like repetition. Everywhere you turn, the show presents quotes from Lichtenstein to illuminate core idea of his aesthetic vision. A short documentary on the Tate website entitled “Diagram of an Artist” offers archival clips of the artist working in his studio. He loved spending every day working there, we are told. His art is less machine than handcrafted, meticulous and carefully created. He devised a unique easel stand that allowed him to turn the canvas on its side or upside down, working on small details, paint brush in hand. Such an image of the artist transforms the machine-like qualities of Pop Art’s surfaces and lines into the more personal vision of it brushstrokes. We tend to think of Pop Art as a rejection of Abstract Expressionism’s emotional expressions of paint on a canvas. But this show is intriguingly obsessed with brushstrokes, prompting me to wonder what can we learn about Pop Art in such gestures of paint?

The show begins with a series of paintings Lichtenstein created in the 1960s that present magnified and stylized brushstrokes as the sole subjects of the canvas. “Little Big Painting” (1965) gives us a swirl of a white stroke cascading down the canvas, and “Brushstroke with Spatter” (1966) presents a midnight blue blob of paint in the center stretching itself upward, leaving a trail of blue spots that look random and unplanned. But these brushstrokes are highly controlled efforts that lack any of the abundance or spontaneity we might encounter with such gestures. They are flat, a look more like a framed poster of a painting you could buy in the gift shop in the way out. And that’s the point. They appear as illustrated images, outlined in black against a background of Lichtenstein’s iconic benday dots, creating the illusion of shading and surface. As the wall text tells us, these works were a direct reference to Abstract Expressionism’s intent. “Brushstrokes in painting convey a sense of grand gesture,” Lichtenstein said of these works, “but in my hands, the brushstroke becomes the depiction of a grand gesture.” The image and the art merge into one.

This depiction of the gesture becomes an echoing visual theme as you move through the show. Consider the iconic war and romance works, presented here with dramatic effect as they are grouped together in one, high-ceilinged gallery. After those brushstrokes, I could only see the fiery flames of the exploding jet in “Whaam!” (1963) as its own kind of paint spatter. Or the swirling water of “Drowning Girl” (1963) as a flowing form of emotion and painterly expression, all controlled and stylized under Lichtenstein’s careful hand. We know that Lichtenstein took these images from popular comic strips, that he often used an opaque projector to outline the comic image onto his canvas, and that he transformed the comic strip, which rests on the sequence of images to achieve its narrative force, towards the power of a singular frame to contain a whole story. But what their appearance in the context of this show reveals is that these iconic images, like the brushstrokes series, offer their own doubt about the power of a brushstroke’s emotional appeal. We encounter in these works, in these explosions of war and the distress of heterosexual love, a playful conflation of comics and canvas, of paint turned into pure image, where emotion itself is held at bay.

One of the more interesting moments in this show comes in the gallery entitled “Art about Art,” which displays a series of paintings that reproduce (copy? parody?) works by Monet, Picasso, Matisse and Mondrian. Here you confront three canvases that use the benday dots as a play on Monet’s studies of the façade of the Rouen cathedral that transform the Impressionist’s original studies in light and color into a meditation on repetition. These works look so mechanical, like photographic negatives, dissolving not only the content of the paintings, but the painterly qualities as well. Lichtenstein turns Monet’s use of paint, his delicate concern for how paint can capture light on the cathedral’s surface, into a collection of dots that he carefully applied to create the tonal shades and architectural details of the cathedral’s façade.

But if he turned Monet’s brushstrokes into dots, he transformed Picasso’s and Matisse into lines. Lichtenstein was a child of modernism, studying art at the Ohio State University in the 1940s. He spent nearly two decades practicing a style that reflected his fascination with Picasso in both composition and form. But it would be in the 1960s and 1970s that he explored a different way of copying those early Modernists whom he admired so much. It is hard to tell what to call his paintings about painting. Take his reproduction of Matisse’s “Still Life With Goldfish” (1972), which presents the original composition with a precise familiarity but a distinctive flatness of form. While Matisse was exploring the play of perspective complications in his own canvas, Lichtenstein’s version turns that still life into a set of shapes and lines, repeating the subject and presenting it as a kind of advertisement image. In “Femme d’Alger” (1963) Lichtenstein copies a painting by Picasso of the same name, turning the composition into a much more flat and stylized image, the paint and shading reflecting how Lichtenstein’s canvas is precisely a reproduction. As the wall text informs us, Picasso’s original painting was a copy of a 19th century work by Delacroix, turning Lichtenstein’s work into a copy of a copy. Lichtenstein’s approach to so many of these copies of modernist work “eliminates any sign of organic life from the painting” writes Tate modern curator Iria Candela in her catalog essay. And while some considered such parodies or copies an insult to the originals, or a kind of effort to kill the masters of modernism, Lichtenstein thought of these works as admirations for the artists themselves. These works make explicit not only the use of copy and remixing in the history of art, but also the more vital reproductions of paintings in mass form, transforming the original, unique qualities of the singular painting into ubiquitous copies. In turning those works into their own flat, illustrative forms, Lichtenstein, who worked from printed reproductions of the paintings themselves, doesn’t so much reproduce the originals but rather raises a point about all reproductions. In essence, his paintings are copies of reproductions. The brushstrokes lose all power in the reproductions, a reality that Lichtenstein continually explored as he transformed painting into mechanical images of dots and lines.

And it is those lines that become so crucial in his paintings. It is the outlines of objects that make you so aware of the work’s surface realities. Like characters in a children’s coloring books, Lichtenstein’s lines transforms shapes and colors into solid objects. “It is not the line itself,” he once said, “but rather the placement of the line that matters.” If the modernist were in love with the effect of a brushstroke, Lichtenstein was in love with the effect of a line, and it is the line more than those dots that give is work the intriguing qualities. The lines hold their own power, blurring the boundaries between illustration and painting, between gesture and design. And perhaps this is Pop Art’s significance, this meta-confusion of encounters, this transformation of brushstrokes into mechanical patterns of lines and dots. From the earliest days of Pop Art’s exposure, critics wonder if it was in fact art, if these canvases were paintings or rather mere illustrations. Absent the acute sense of brushstrokes, that detail so crucial to modernism, and looking more like illustrations than paintings, what can we call these works?

Consider the gallery of mirror paintings, these oddly compelling canvases where Lichtenstein explored the idea of art’s ability to reflect. In the 1970s, Lichtenstein created a number of such paintings in all different shapes and sizes, flat white surfaces that used benday dots to indicate the mirror’s reflective potential. Though of course these are not mirrors but canvases, they reflect nothing except the ideas of a mirror. As the wall text reminds us, “Ever since Leonardo da Vinci called the true artist a ‘mirror of nature,’ mirrors have symbolized painting itself.” But, as we are also informed, for Lichtenstein his mirrors “produce no real reflections except depicted ones that lie on the surface as paint.” More acutely, his mirror paintings with their utter inability to reflect anything but canvas surface, remind us, like his copies of modernist art works, that art is itself a play of copies upon copies, dubious of the divide between canvas and nature.

In the 1990s, Lichtenstein experimented in a little-known series of paintings that juxtaposed heavy brushstrokes of paint with flat geometrical forms. He called this series “obliterating brushstrokes.” The wall text in one of the last galleries in this show, calls these works meditations on the “very essence of painting,” but I was struck by the word “obliterating” and violent imagery it connoted. It is as if Lichtenstein’s brushstrokes are a constant meditation on what a brushstroke can reveal, obliterating the meaning but not the gesture. In emphasizes this quality of Lichtenstein’s work, the show offers an odd and intriguing links between the artist and the Abstract Expressionist, hinting that his work is as much a comment upon that earlier genre as it is a part of it essential concerns.

And so we are left with the brushstrokes. In the late 1990s, Lichtenstein created a series of paintings that copy the stylized landscapes of Chinese artists of the Song dynasty (why these works are not included in the “Art about Art” section is unclear to me). Lichtenstein turned those earlier landscapes into near abstractions of dots, the atmospheric qualities of mist and light rendered with a very mute palette of blues and grays. The delicacy of these works is a striking contrast to his earlier use of bold colors and shapes. Here the hills and coastline, cliffs and valleys, take shape through the use of benday dots. No longer simply an accent of shading or texture, the dots now define the essence of the painting. There is one painting here that struck me the most: “Landscape in Fog” (1996), completed just a year before his death. The painting of blue and white hues all composed of benday dots that darken as they move out from the painting’s nearly flat white center. The mountains in the distance are formed through the subtle gradations of dots, and the foreground darkens with them. A small tree branch to the left helps situate you in the painting’s vista. The lines that were so important in Lichtenstein’s earlier images have here evaporated in this rendering of fog. Instead, right in the middle of the canvas, stretching across this abstracted landscape is a thick swirl of light blue and white paint, its heavy layers reflecting the quick gestures of the artist’s brush and hand. Unlike those stylized brushstrokes that began this show, this one, meant to capture the ephemeral nature of fog, holds an emotional presence that contrasts sharply to the mechanical rhythm of the dots. But then I feared over determining this swath of paint. That’s the problem with brushstrokes. They can confound us with their significance. Throughout this show we are reminded how much Lichtenstein depended on such brushstrokes throughout his career. And how difficult it was for him to escape their meaning. 2 April 2013