Why Pop Art Is Jewish
A Roy Lichtenstein show at the Art Institute of Chicago reveals the movement’s affront to WASPy decorum
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.
After World War II, Polish peasants hunted for jewels and gold amid the human remains at former Nazi death camps