Master Copycat

Lichtenstein knew the art was in the reproduction and representation

Lichtenstein's sculptures pursued the formal concerns to which Clearwater points but not so much his paintings (as she seems to imply). In fact Lichtenstein's canvases, sparse and brilliant in hue as they are, allow little tolerance for spatial illusion. Whereas Duchamp would use ready-mades to -- puzzlingly -- make a point of what is (and not) art, Lichtenstein copied out of "my love for the original," as he admitted. Copying and magnifying, two of the artist's favorite tricks, gave him the ability to assimilate the style of Pop as a living culture. After all, isn't our mass culture -- with TV, movies, mass media, the computer -- a kind of magnifying, snooping machine?

Lichtenstein once remarked he didn't think he could have come up with something as good as his copies on his own. Joke aside, one can see his sort of antiseptic art as pure parody, a way of deceiving people into thinking seriously. Lichtenstein, like Warhol, reacted against the attitude of people who viewed Pop Art as what-you-see-is-what-you-get aesthetics.

During the Eighties Lichtenstein did a series of public projects, including Salute to Painting, a large outdoor sculpture installed at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and Modern Head, a 32-foot-high sculpture installed in Battery Park City in lower Manhattan, finished in 1991. He also made a few Abstract Expressionist pieces.

Coup de Chapeau I, painted bronze
Coup de Chapeau I, painted bronze


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Then we have Lichtenstein's interiors and his Chinese paintings. The interiors are self-referential and cerebral, paraphrasing his life and style already processed by the culture. Check out the Hokusai-like Landscape with Boat and the almost psychedelic Collage for Interior with Painting of Nude. Here, instead of doing collage, he simulates it. This last period is weaker, in terms of breaking new ground, as if the artist stopped copying "a style" to indulge his own symbols already rehashed from his own copies (he who had always eschewed being symbolic).

In retrospect Lichtenstein was able to develop a style by copying the style of an epoch, which remains an unavoidable riddle of Modern art. A psychologist of American mores, Lichtenstein was a stylistic provocateur. In his work we find teenage drama, modern deep-seated anxieties, the relation between pretense and advertising, and the never-ending problem of illusion in Modern art.

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