There's a retrospective of Roy Lichtenstein on at the Tate until May and, amid the coverage it's been getting, some comic artists have been asked about their opinions on his work. Marc Ellerby faced some fairly vocal criticism last week for having the gall to suggest that maybe the original comic artists should have been credited while Dave Gibbons faced barely concealed contempt from Alastair Sooke when he admitted he'd prefer an original copy of All American Men of War than Lichtenstein's WHAAM! (currently valued at $45 million). All this prompted me to produce Retrospective this week.
Cards on the table: I love some aspects of pop art and have absolutely no problem with appropriation of imagery in the right context. There are even some parts of Lichtenstein's work that I enjoy, but I do have difficulty with this period of his work. A cursory glimpse at the fascinating Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein shows just much verve, vitality and beauty was lost when Lichtenstein translated original comic panels to the canvas.
While some will muddy the argument by talking about the value in the representational aspects of the original versus the cold, clinical abstraction of Lichtenstein's work, I think what can often be overlooked is just how perfectly designed those originals are. The colour choices, the composition, the lettering, the linework... draftsmanship aside, the original work sings and there are some pieces where I genuinely can't understand what Lichtenstein was adding to the mix. Comics are, by their very nature and the visual vocabulary they use, an abstraction already.
It saddens me to think that many who see Lichtenstein's work will think that this is what a comic looks like. That his crude, disjointed faces, poor lettering, and kitsch clinical distance is actually representative of comics. I think it's fairly on record that Lichtenstein had no love of comics nor viewed them as an art form in their own right. This work was never asking us to reconsider the everyday mass produced artefacts in front of us as art - in the way that Warhol's work did. No, if anything, these pieces seem to mock their original sources. They come across sarcastic. Punching downwards at an art form that had few defenders. Another stick for the arbiters of "high" art to beat the comics medium with. That the original artists were not even credited, acknowledged or paid for this shows an alarming lack of respect for them and for their work.
I genuinely have a lot of time for post-modernism and completely understand that all artists steal, but as Austin Kleon notes in Steal Like An Artist:
I suppose what really annoys me about all this is not Lichtenstein or his work so much as what it represents about the way the medium I love is viewed and represented within the art world. And down that road leads madness really, so I should just be happy I can produce a weekly comic like this and get it out of my system.