Searching for an archetype: pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s artwork

Frame of Mind is a weekly column written by the University of Dallas Art Association (UDAA). It features articles like the one below and provides the student body with an opportunity to read about certain artists, styles, movements and exhibitions. All articles are written by different members of the Association.

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This piece, entitled “Whaam!” was published in 1963 at Tate Modern, a modern art gallery located in London. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org

Pop Art was an American art movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s that began as a reaction against Abstract Expressionism. One of the movement’s defining and most critiqued components was the artists’ portrayal of commercial subject matter. Roy Lichtenstein was one pop artist whose art was on the receiving end of severe criticism because the subject matter was considered unoriginal. Influenced by the growing consumerism and mass media of the late 1950s, pop artists like Lichtenstein chose to create works of art depicting objects that could be mass-produced. Their art dealt with the seriality of mass-produced goods, the originality associated with subject matter and the removal of the artist’s hand. However, the artists did not regard their subjects as stolen or direct copies; they considered their work authentic and legitimate art.

Well-known pieces by pop artist Lichtenstein include depictions of comic strips, composition books and hot dogs. He used appropriation of comic strip illustrations to investigate consumerism and pop culture, and to discover archetypes in form and line. Lichtenstein wanted to create unified artwork while also investigating the idea of the archetype through the use of clichés. Despite the criticism he received for the use of comic strip characters for his subject matter, Lichtenstein viewed these people as classical prototypes who could be depicted in a mechanical, printed way.

Lichtenstein was interested in developing classical form and exploring how an artist could portray the ideal head, facial features and body. He believed that artists could paint any form however they wanted, but that there exist certain lines or forms that more powerfully convey symbolism than others. Every illustrator can draw an eye, nose or mouth in a similar, but slightly individual manner. This natural duplication of human characteristics or actions was fascinating to Lichtenstein, and he told David Sylvester in his 1965 interview, “in painting, you can alter the image of an eye or nose, a shadow or something from a complete cliché … to make it do something else in a painting, [but] it still seems to retain its clichéd quality.” Sometimes he would slightly alter the subject to emphasize stereotypes portrayed, but throughout the process he retained two steps: enlarging and drawing.

Enlarging and drawing were imperative parts of the creative process because they allowed Lichtenstein to make the comic strip a piece of his own work. By enlarging the subject and drawing the composition, Lichtenstein was able to eliminate inessential details, emphasize motion, or poses and create a unified artwork. Compositional unity was crucial to Lichtenstein. Despite the cliché and reproductive aspects of his work, the image itself as a balanced composition was one of the most important elements of his paintings. Lichtenstein transformed low art into high art when he created. Thus, his subject matter was no longer merely a cliché.

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