Where Is the Jewish Lichtenstein?
“Jews and comic books” is a topic that has received extensive treatment in the last 15 years. But what of the Jewish visual artists whose paintings are inspired by comic books? What of Roy Lichtenstein? Jewish studies scholars can look forward to the day when a dissertation is written about Lichtenstein as a Jewish artist, or an exhibition is curated on the same theme.
“Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective,” now on view at the Art institute of Chicago with upcoming stops at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the Tate Modern in London, and the Pompidou Center in Paris, is not that exhibit. But its silence on Lichtenstein’s Jewishness offers a starting point for considering how Jewishness and art intersected for one founder of Pop Art.
Born and bred on the Upper West Side in a family of middle class German Jewish immigrants, Lichtenstein’s Jewish roots are undeniable; it is the trajectory of his career, as displayed in the current retrospective — the largest grouping of the artist’s work ever shown — that raises new questions about what it means to be a Jewish artist. Literary critics have long described the ethnic flavor of mid-20th century American Jewish writers in terms of emotional release and affront to WASP decorum, but the art world presents an almost opposite picture.
At the time Lichtenstein was coming into his own as an artist in the 1950s, the dominant art movement was abstract expressionism. The movement — along with typical American Protestant religious practice — was characterized by spontaneous individual emotional expression. The style never quite fit Lichtenstein, who was described as shy and self-conscious by those who knew him. Whereas abstract expressionism presumed the artist’s comfort in expressing his interiority, for Lichtenstein art was a mirror of culture — a posture that cast him as coolly detached.
Everyday objects such as comic books, advertisements and consumer goods became Lichtenstein’s sources. In the early 1960s, oil paintings such as “Keds” (1961), “Cup of Coffee” (1961), “Tire” (1961) and “Hot Dog” (1964) transformed the prosaic into fine art. Even more than the splattered canvases of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Lichtenstein’s work begged the question: What counts as fine art? Viewers encountering Lichtenstein’s work for the first time cannot help but become intrigued by art history: How did this become art?
It’s a question that mirrors Lichtenstein’s interest in the way style trickles down through society over generations. Images found in history textbooks, store circulars, or phone books were elevated to oil paintings. The tension between art and the everyday was also embodied in Lichtenstein’s signature use of Ben-Day dots. They gave the impression of mass-production but were in fact always hand-made — originals pretending to be reproductions.
Early critics mistook Lichtenstein’s portraits as mere copies of his materials, but the artist’s drawings — also on display — reveal the transformation from, say, an advertisement for detergent to its final portrait. Lichtenstein’s wry sense of humor was integral to the process. Commenting on Lichtenstein’s 1966 “Alka Seltzer” in the exhibit’s audio guide, curator James Rondeau suggests the drawing was Lichtenstein’s response to the indigestion caused by the glut of food subjects in Pop Art.
In his 1990s “Nudes” series, the artist blended two of his most important inspirations: Henri Matisse and DC Comics blondes, defrocked and frolicking on the beach. The series, by combining comic book style with the grand art-historical genre, expressed Lichtenstein’s own feeling of belonging to an artistic tradition that included very few Jews but could not help influence future generations of Jewish artists.
“All art is based on art of the past,” Lichtenstein told an audience at the 92nd Street Y in February, 1991. “Otherwise we’d all paint like children.” For a Pop artist, history and cultural transmission from generation to generation was strikingly important.