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Roy Lichtenstein Unwittingly Invented Pop Art

The painting was a career-defining achievement. The artist had stumbled upon an aesthetic that would make him a forerunner of the nascent American

movement. Like the best fish tales, the multiple origin stories behind Look Mickey are both dubious and endearing.

Working in Cleveland, Ohio, throughout the late 1940s and ’50s, supporting himself and his young family with various part-time jobs—including as an industrial draftsman, furniture designer, and store window designer—Lichtenstein created bright, figurative paintings that owed more toCubism andSurrealism than to the day’s dominant mode ofAbstract Expressionism . He was already focused, however, on distinctly American motifs: Throughout the 1950s, he created fractured imagery of cowboys and Native Americans. Toward the end of the decade, Lichtenstein began to experiment with colorful abstractions—patchworks of stripes and gestural marks. (He also made a few abstracted sketches of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, which foreshadowed Look Mickey.)

According to one anecdote, Lichtenstein’s son, Mitchell, was not impressed with his father’s work. “[Lichtenstein] says that he painted [Look Mickey] for his son’s friends,” Graham Bader, a professor of art history at Rice University, explained. “In school they’d been mocking him, that his father wasn’t any good because he only painted abstract,” he said. Lichtenstein decided to make something that would prove to Mitchell and his friends that he really could paint, not just make incomprehensible scribbles.
Lichtenstein took a source image from a 1960 children’s book entitled Donald Duck Lost and Found, refined the palette to only primary colors and white, and simplified the composition (the original features a more crowded scene, with figures running in the background). He adopted a line from the book for the speech bubble and made the characters brighter and blockier. The final painting also features greater detail in the waves beneath the dock.

Lichtenstein first showed Look Mickey toAllan Kaprow in 1960, while both were working as art instructors at Rutgers University in New Jersey. They were discussing pedagogy, particularly how to teach students about composition. Kaprow mentioned how he feltPaul Cézanne’s work was too complex—alternately, bubble gum comics were a better tool. Upon hearing this, Lichtenstein showed Kaprow his own comic-inspired piece.

Both stories could, indeed, be apocryphal. “As Lichtenstein remembered it, it was a Bazooka comic,” Bader said. But scholars have disputed which exact comic Kaprow really referenced. Additionally, in a 1966 BBC interview with David Sylvester, Lichtenstein misremembered the content of his own painting. He stated that Donald and Mickey were on a raft, not a dock, and that it was Mickey—not Donald—who’d caught his coat on the fishing line.

Nevertheless, Bader finds meaning in Lichtenstein’s chosen content. He believes that Look Mickey is a retelling of the Narcissus story. In the Greek myth, the hunter Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection in a pool. During theRenaissance , artist, architect, and writerLeon Battista Alberti asserted that Narcissus was the first painter: For “what is painting,” Alberti asked, “but the act of embracing by means of art the surface of a pool?” In Lichtenstein’s painting, Bader continued, Donald is “looking into the water and he says he’s hooked a big one. So he thinks he’s got something in the water that is in the end only himself. The waves below echo his own beak. It’s as if Lichtenstein is suggesting he’s looking at his own reflection.”

Beyond supporting Lichtenstein’s foray into pop culture, Kaprow also helped jumpstart his colleague’s career by introducing him to the era’s preeminent art dealer, Leo Castelli. In 1962, Castelli mounted a solo exhibition of Lichtenstein’s work. The mailer itself became an objet d’art: The invitations depicted three screen-printed handshakes, all rendered in a comic-book style. The show sold out before opening night. Prominent architectPhilip Johnson purchased Girl with Ball (1961), which became one of Lichtenstein’s most iconic artworks. The painting features a woman in a bathing suit, hands in the air as she clasps a beach ball. For the work, Lichtenstein co-opted an advertisement for a lodge in the Poconos.

Though the New York cultural elite were quickly on board with Lichtenstein’s newfound aesthetic, not all critics were so approving. As Max Kozloff wrote in The Nation, “All that really counts any more are the contexts and intentions, not the execution and the results. I find it hard to get excited by Lichtenstein’s appeal to my special knowledge; still less can I summon up interest for his insult to my general intelligence.” Notably,Andy Warhol used cartoons in his paintings before Lichtenstein did. (Warhol eventually used the Mickey Mouse motif, too, in 1981.) Warhol, however, usually focused on characters that personified American masculinity, like Dick Tracy and Popeye. Upon learning of Lichtenstein’s success at Castelli, Warhol changed tack—to his great benefit. In 1962, he created 32 canvases depicting the different flavors of Campbell’s Soup. He exhibited the work later that year at Los Angeles’s Ferus Gallery, and his (much more than) 15 minutes of fame began. Castelli had declined to show Warhol after his hit with Lichtenstein, fearing that the two artists were making work that was too similar. He eventually caved in 1964, and Warhol and Lichtenstein shared a place on his roster.

Though Lichtenstein and Warhol became leading figures of the Pop art movement, Bader noted a major distinction between their oeuvres. Warhol was concerned with reproduction, consumerism, and the multiple. By contrast, Bader observed, “Lichtenstein was very much a painter. A painter who was concerned with issues of composition and compositional integrity and integration.”
Regardless of the details behind its making, Look Mickey brilliantly navigates the division between high and low culture, pulp and fine art. Thanks to Lichtenstein, comic book images, previously regarded as children’s entertainment, began to find homes on museum walls—and in the history of art.
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.
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