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Why Pop Art Is Jewish

A Roy Lichtenstein show at the Art Institute of Chicago reveals the movement’s affront to WASPy decorum

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Roy Lichtenstein, American (1923-1997). Haystacks, 1969. Oil and Magna on canvas. 40.6 x 61 cm (16 x 24 in). (© Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. The Ruben Family.)

Roy Lichtenstein, whose painting “Sleeping Girl” sold last week at Sotheby’s for $44.8 million, a record for his work, is one of those Jewish artists whose art is rarely if ever connected to their Jewishness. This is not only because his subject matter is not Jewish—a literary equivalent from the same generation is Norman Mailer, with whom Lichtenstein shared the bracket of his life 1923-2007—but also because of the objective coolness of his compositions. In Paris, when Chagall and Soutine were both living and working there in the early years of the 20th century it was, strangely, and perhaps anti-Semitically, Soutine who was considered by critics to be the exemplary Jewish painter because, while he never took on Jewish subject matter, his expressionism was read as a type of over-emoting common to Jews. Reactions to Rothko sometimes work along these lines. Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day dots, comic-strip figures, and industrialized canvases resist even a hint of residual emotional expression and with one small exception, a parodic Chagallesque fiddler inserted into a large mural that he donated to the Tel Aviv Museum in 1989, he certainly wasn’t interested in Jewish themes. One faux Chagall doesn’t make a summer, and Lichtenstein’s oeuvre entirely escapes, it would seem, any kind of categorization as that of a Jewish painter.

Plus, Pop Art isn’t Jewish, or hasn’t been seen as such. Its concerns are entirely elsewhere and include the economics of printing, the industrialization of images, cultural vulgarization, and the way that, as Somerset Maugham once asserted, “Man in extremity sounds like a cheap novel.” But it was Jewish for me in 1968 when I first saw Lichtenstein’s work in what was generally regarded as a sensational, subversive show at London’s Tate Gallery. I was 17 and I lined up for a long time on a cold January day for the pleasure of standing in front of “WHAAM !”—one of the paintings currently on exhibit in the wonderfully comprehensive Lichtenstein retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago opening today—and all the other oversized, glorious (to a 17-year-old) comic-strip adaptations.

Why Jewish? Because I assimilated Lichtenstein’s paintings as an affront to convention and to what I perceived as the stultifying and exclusive tastefulness and establishment decorum of the WASP world. An American Jew rocking the Tate Gallery looked like good news to me. Saul Bellow, reflecting on the cramped and claustrophobic atmosphere of his first two novels Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1948), explained that they emerged from “the incredible effrontery of announcing [him]self to the world ( … the WASP world) as a writer and as an artist” a feeling that only fell away when he began to write his breakthrough third novel, The Adventures of Augie March. Perhaps I was being as silly as the French critics who responded to Soutine’s expressionism as Jewish, mistaking pictorial exuberance for an ethnic endorsement. Only a year after the Lichtenstein show, Portnoy’s Complaint came along, and nothing was hidden after that.

***

The current retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago, the largest since Lichtenstein’s death, unfolds in room after room. The progression is chronological with occasional breaks in the continuity for sculpture and significant groupings, like Lichtenstein’s ersatz reworking of Mondrian, Matisse, Monet, and others that also features his sublimely antic nascent pop version of  Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” The cumulative effect is in the end less powerful than the rooms that house “WHAAM!” and the other breakthrough paintings from 1962 to 1965 that include the clairvoyant “WHY, BRAD DARLING, THIS PAINTING IS A MASTERPIECE! MY, SOON YOU’LL HAVE ALL OF NEW YORK CLAMORING FOR YOUR WORK!” These war and romance paintings still carry a terrific wallop, the good old shock of the new. Yet elsewhere, Lichtenstein’s endless quotation of others and of himself—whether it’s landscapes in the Chinese style or paintings of his own studio featuring his early works on the walls—sometimes makes it seem as if we are reading an extraordinarily long footnote. The last room is devoted to a series of nudes that Lichtenstein produced in his seventies: The AARP years frequently return male artists to the naked figure. Here we have comic-strip girls with a beach ball, others who are by turns sultry, anxious, pensive: all shaded in Ben-Day dots. Lichtenstein’s late nudes are not priapic like Picasso’s but, true to form, cerebral, distanced by the inevitable quotation marks and his foregrounded concerns with composition.

During the Lichtenstein show’s brief stay at the Tate in 1968—little more than a month—the People’s Army of Vietnam launched its Tet offensive, the Americans responded, and “WHAAM!”, which Lichtenstein had adapted from an image in the 1962 D.C. comic All American Men of War, suddenly looked like the most prescient and economical depiction of the destructive power and cultural wackiness of the United States in Vietnam. After all, this was a war in which some men went into battle wearing Batman outfits. If the big idea behind the great American comic strip and its animated cousin was to make death unreal (Daffy Duck can withstand any number of shotgun blasts) and in that way to endorse any kind of trespass because it has no consequences (bomb Hanoi!), then Vietnam was the place to test that idea in action. The things they carried were to ward off darkness, the invisible enemy, and death, but if you could convince yourself that you had superpowers and the constitution of a two-dimensional illustration whose bullet-holes in the abdomen miraculously sealed up in the next frame, so much the better. Repetitive, sterilizing TV news, long-distance bombing, everything conspired to make sure that nothing of any relevance got through. By painting war bigger, bolder, brighter, and more deranged in its distance than even its architects wanted it to be, Lichtenstein appeared to expose and explode the lie.

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artsandsciences says:

Of course, Abstract Expressionism (against which Pop Art was rebelling) was also Jewish, very, very Jewish. Apart from DeKooning, almost all the major practitioners were Jews as were the critics. The pop artists, on the whole, were not: Warhol, Rosenquist et al. So there is something really tendentious about this argument. The New York art scene had lots and lots of Jews. In all camps.

Christopher Reiger says:

ArtsAndSciences, I don’t believe Mr. Wilson is making a serious claim that Pop Art is Jewish.  The essay is more of an innocent, well-intentioned reaching-claiming, which most of us do now and again (e.g., Christopher Columbus is back in the news as a crypto-Jew).  In the case of Lichtenstein, of course, he IS Jewish, but his creative output isn’t generally considered such.  Mr. Wilson does a good job of pointing out the “Jewishy” aspects of Lichtenstein’s life and legacy….but, for my part, I’m glad that Lichtenstein isn’t generally thought of as a “Jewish artist.”

Throughout my late teens and twenties, Lichtenstein’s comic-inspired artworks inflamed my sense of righteous indignation.  I was bothered less by the famous artist’s questionable sampling of newspaper and comic book artists’ work than I was by his disregard for the skill of those he copied. In a 1963 interview, Lichtenstein distinguished between his source material and his paintings, stating:

“What I do is form, whereas the comic strip is not formed in the sense I’m using the word; the comics have shapes but there has been no effort to make them intensely unified…The difference is often not great, but it is crucial.”

Uh-huh, Roy.  It’s not simply the well-heeled, intellectually insecure audience that make the “crucial” difference?

I don’t get especially worked up about Lichtenstein’s appropriation anymore, but I still believe the man was something of a charlatan. Had he acknowledged his indebtedness to the artists he imitated, his comic panel paintings could be interpreted as a cynical project highlighting the role of class and money in the appraisal of culture (i.e., it’s not fine art if it’s in a newspaper, but if it’s in a gallery and the “right” person will pay a lot of money for it, it is). That still wouldn’t make it particularly thoughtful artwork, but it’s certainly a Pop Art approach, and Lichtenstein could have been remembered as a winking champion of the comic artists that nourished him.

Alas, he choose another way of framing himself, one that included a lot less humility and no sense of humor.

If there’s one thing to celebrate about him (from where I stand), it’s that I almost always prefer the artists who work hard to the artists who play hard.

gwhepner says:

WITHOUT A LEOPARD LIECHTENSTEIN

Chagall loved painting Jewish subjects, Judaizing Jesus
Liechtenstein steered clear of his ethnicity and pleases
artistic pop polloi, not demonstrating in his “WHAAM!”
or other comic strip that he’s a son of Abraham.
As such the artist is more typical of Jews today
than is Chagall, whose paint records a world that is passé.
Although you cannot change the skin of any Ethiop,
without a leopard Liechtenstein made spots artistic pop.

Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil (Jer. 13:23)

gwhepner@yahoo.com

neryflan says:

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Roy Lichtenstein

A retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago
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