Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
April Bernard and Mimi Thompson speak with the legendary American painter on the eve of a Fall 1986 exhibition of his work, getting to the bottom of Lichtenstein’s brushstrokes and revealing his true feelings about comics.
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In early November, shortly before the opening of Roy Lichtenstein’s show of new landscape paintings, we interviewed him in New York City.
April Bernard Do you feel real American?
Roy Lichtenstein Mostly but not entirely. I think that I look at American things somewhat through European eyes, not because I’m European but because art history is usually oriented to the European view, and that’s what I was brought up on. So I think that real American objects look as bizarre to me as they would look to a European, and that’s the interest.
AB There was a show at Mi Chou Gallery in the early ’60s which combined paintings from the Hudson River School with yours, alternating a Kensett, for instance, with a cartoon frame. What do you think they were getting at?
RL I think that the gallery people had bought a drawing from Leo or Ivan, and they just liked my work. They just put the two together. It was sort of amazing.
AB So you were being put into a landscape context.
RL A strange context. Well, I think the idea was that this was a new American thing.
MT How did the early reaction to your painting affect you? A lot of the criticism was very reactionary.
RL That’s right. But I think there were enough people, though very few, who seemed to get it. I had painted for a long time before anyone even looked at my work, so just the attention was gratifying enough. Of course, you really don’t love to hear people hating your work but the fact that there was so much controversy kept it alive in a way. A lot of articles decrying the amount of publicity were adding to the publicity. That was always good. But I think you always have some doubts … . I always know I’m doing art. But I also know that everyone else thinks they’re doing art and they’re not. So there could be something wrong with my perceptions. But I don’t doubt when I’m actually painting, it’s the criticism that makes you wonder, it does. The same thing can be seen in a million ways. It could be campy nonsense or it could be an invention.
AB Did the negative criticism galvanize you? Make you feel tougher? What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, that sort of thing?
RL I don’t think I ever felt really defeated by criticism. Actually, when you’re painting you’re doing something different anyway. There’s only one way you could paint, at least I could paint, at any particular time. I can’t do anything about making it better, I really can’t. Trying hard has nothing to do with whether you paint better. You just do what you can do. And you think you see it and you never know if you do or not, but can’t worry about those doubts or you never do anything.
AB Was there any critic who made a difference in a good way?
RL There were people who just sort of got the Pop sensibility, in a way that I didn’t. Comics were a big thing with them. I never really read a comic, except as a child. I didn’t look at comic books as anything except as a place to find these images I was looking for.
Mimi Thompson Did you feel an affinity with the other Pop artists?
RL Yes. I don’t think any of us were doing the same thing, except for the subject. But you can see why people thought of us as a group, because the subject was strange enough to begin with. Now we’re talking about the ’60s. Nobody’s probably interested in this; they’ve heard it 50 million times.
ABEveryone’s interested in the ’60s all over again.
RLGuess they weren’t born yet. Yes, that really is something, to open a catalogue: “First One Man Show … born: 1982.”
MTThere’s one artist, Sherrie Levine …
RLI know her work.
MTDo you feel that what you were doing early on made it possible for an artist like her to take it further? She doesn’t change the image, which you always did … .
RL It’s hard to know. I think there’s always enough in the air to allow new things. I always feel that if I’d done what I did ten years earlier no one would have seen it. So it takes a certain time to make things possible … . This idea of pretending to be copying.
MT It seems to be a more cynical endeavor.
RL I don’t think of my art as a gesture or as dada or as anti-art, which a lot of people think it is.
AB There’s something I’ve been thinking about. I was reading a little catalogue about your work which showed some before and after shots, the original cartoon and then your revision. I noticed that you tended to not only re-compose but also to come in a little closer. And then I was looking at Trigger,  started thinking about the eroticism of detail. Have you ever read Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie? It takes place in India—there’s a doctor who’s called upon to treat the daughter of a very wealthy man, but he can’t look at her body because she’s too important and pure. So they cut a hole in a sheet and he has to examine her body through the hole. And she, of course, keeps coming down with more and more ailments because she likes the attention of this young doctor. They move the hole over her entire body and eventually—it’s such a wonderful novel—anyway, they do get married and they always treasure that sheet.
RL I’ve got to try that.
AB It’s a kind of eroticism your paintings seem to have—visual synecdoche, where the part stands for the whole.
RL But they’re so clean, I think, very clean. Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
ARI guess there’s some sort of psychological dysfunction involved there, too, related to fetishism. It’s so powerful as a device—it’s used by advertising. In a culture where it’s very hard to get the whole picture it becomes almost necessary to grab for the detail.
RLThe history of art can almost be seen as getting more ground-directed. You have icons, then figures, then landscapes, and so forth, and then you have Pollock where there’s no figure; it’s all ground. So it’s a shock to suddenly do an object. You can’t do it in a primitive way; you have to keep the wholeness of the painting. But it might seem that you’re presenting a part disconnected from the whole, separate from the whole white canvas … . It isn’t that you’re making a golf ball; you’re actually making a group of marks, you know. And you’ve done something which is the opposite of what art’s been leaning toward for six thousand years. I was always interested in getting the thing, and then disconnecting it from composition.
MT To make a formal thing out of a natural object.
RL I think it makes a harder composition, if you take something that seems separate—hard to compose. That’s not what I’m doing now. But it was interesting then, I thought.
AB And sex had nothing to do with it.
RL To the extent that it was suppressed, it must have been almost overwhelming.
MT A friend of mine teaches and she has some students who do classical landscapes and still lifes. They’re really interested in turn-of-the-century painting, which is fine, but anything after, say, 1920, they refuse to discuss, as if modernism never really happened. It’s a kind of reactionary backlash. I was surprised, although I shouldn’t be, because it’s a fairly reactionary time right now.
RL You wouldn’t think that Reaganism would get into the art schools which are supposed to be very open.
MT Yes, you would think they would explore anything—but apparently it’s very conservative. The thing that surprises me most is the hostility. It sounds like an art gang.
AB It sounds like the new right wing in France. The French students embracing 19th-century culture and denying that the Holocaust happened, among other things.
RL It’s strange. It will be interesting to see what comes out of it. Or maybe uninteresting. You’d think they’d all be doing neo-expressionism—but I guess that’s already old, practically. As a strategy—which you shouldn’t have, as an art student, or as any anything else for that matter—whatever is going on, if you start doing it in school, it will be done by the time you get out.
MT Did you try to react against Abstract Expressionism?
RL My work had that appearance but don’t think I had that feeling. I was unaware that the movement was falling apart, which everyone else seemed to know.
AB Do you have problems with certain people owning your paintings?
RL Owning them?
AB You just let go, say good-bye?
RL Well I keep a few, but the others—I’m glad they’re out in the world. People see them. Once in a while there’s a painting I would like to keep, but it’s usually the one everyone wants. It’s very hard. I go to collectors’ houses and see them. I always have a different feeling about the paintings after they’ve been gone awhile—they’re on a different wall.
AB When O.K. Hotshot was being resold a few years ago, it was hanging in the office at BlumHelman Gallery for a week or so and I think I made three or four pilgrimages just to look at it. I loved it so much, I thought, how could he bear to lose this?
RL But I wouldn’t let that go now. It’s too late. Unfortunately I did lose almost all those early works because I was so amazed that anybody wanted them in the first place; so it was very hard to resist if they asked. I don’t love the idea that people might buy one and then auction it three minutes later. That doesn’t slay me.
MT It makes it seem like soybean futures.
MT We saw those covers you did for Time magazine, including one of Bobby Kennedy; they were great. Did you like doing that, having a wide audience?
RL Yes, I like the big audience. I also did a gun cover—the issue about gun control. In fact, I made them both at the same time, and then Kennedy was shot. Which was pretty shocking. I had done the gun before he was shot and they published it afterward.
MT That’s so strange, isn’t it? It almost makes you feel like you have too much control.
RL I know. It’s just good that I don’t have that control, really. There wouldn’t be many critics left.
AB You’d be great at propaganda.
MT Then there’s that cover you did for Art in America—the World’s Fair.
RL With people from Saturn at the World’s Fair.
MT Do you like working on things like that?
RL I really don’t think so. They have to depict more than I’m interested in depicting. They have to tell stories; they’re too specific. More illustration—in retrospect they look like commercial art, which is what everybody thinks my work looks like, anyway. (laughter)
MT Do you think of doing videos or other kinds of media?
RL Everyone has an idea for a movie. But I think I’m the only artist in the world who doesn’t have the faintest idea what to do with a movie—with stage sets, with video.
AB Murals are a little like stage sets. I saw a reproduction of the new Equitable mural.
RL They’re already making posters of it and it doesn’t even exist yet.
AB I was puzzled by something. What is the hand wiping with the sponge?
RL It’s wiping the mural off. Then what’s left behind is the windows, the wall of the building. It’s a play on the fact that it’s a mural, and you can get rid of the mural.
AB What do you read?
RL Read? Read? I just read BOMB, actually. (laughter) I hardly ever read novels. I read about science … . I like Scientific American, things on DNA, on particle physics—it sounds more profound than my knowledge is. I read it—I don’t know if I understand it. I’m not usually reading, actually. Certainly not comic books.
AB Do you read any natural history? Stephen Jay Gould, that sort of thing?
RL No, it’s too natural; I wouldn’t want to do anything like that. Compassion—I know I’ve heard of it, seen it in the movies …
MT Are you working on any large-scale sculpture?
RL Just one for the Walker. It’s a brushstroke, 25 feet high, which isn’t so enormous anymore.
MT Do you like it as a break from painting?
RL Yes, I do.
AB Where is Dagwood?
RL Dagwood, the painting that has Dagwood on one side—Irving Blum has it. Here’s a print in a similar vein.
AB Is that the right color on Dagwood’s face? The one we saw on a slide looked like a black Dagwood.
RL This is the right color.
MT The perspective is such that you’re always being thrown off balance.
AB And you fall between the two images.
RL I had always wanted to do Dagwood, but I never did it earlier. Because it’s so hysterical, maybe.
MT Are you ready for the new show?
RL I finished the paintings. I’m not psychologically ready, but the paintings are done.
MT I think we saw some slides of the recent landscapes. They were very open.
RL Yes. They’re more like paintings I did in the ’50s.
MT It seems like you’ve kind of wiped out some of your vocabulary, and are doing more immediate gestures.
RL Well, everything is a brushstroke. It’s either real or it’s fake. That’s the idea. It gives me a certain freedom—if I make a mistake, I can correct it with a fake brushstroke. I like to work this way. It makes a nice textural difference. I think, between the two things. Maybe its my own art criticism.
AB Even the real brushstrokes seem so incredibly controlled. It’s like you have your wrist in a vise.
RL It’s because I don’t want it to look like a modulated area. I want it to took like a brushstroke. They don’t all come out that way, but they are supposed to look like instances of the perfect brush stroke.
MT Like units of brushstroke?
MT Are the new paintings less theoretical? Do you feel it’s a change from your earlier work, taking so many images from pre-existing sources?
RL Yes—though a lot of earlier work wasn’t taken from anywhere. The new pictures are less regimented, with a freedom of color and boundary that I like. I think that everything I’ve ever done is somewhat varied in style, but it’s basically the same thing. Some of the cubist compositions I’ve done in the past are very similar to these.
MT Did moving out to Long Island change the work?
RL I don’t think so. So many people are taken with the light out there, but I … . Most of the entablatures were done out there, and some of the landscapes were done here in, the city, so I don’t think it means anything. It may have made a dent in my psyche but I don’t think it got into my paintings. Almost everything I do comes from printed material, not nature.
MT It’s not that romantic, you’re right. But when we were looking at your pictures—not just the recent ones—we agreed that there seems to be a lot of passion there. But it’s all very controlled at the same time, so it’s a funny juxtaposition.
RL That’s me.
AB It’s more like, I know that the passion’s there, but don’t know where it is. Do you know where it is?
RL Yes: I think it’s in the position of each contrast. It’s where the mark is relative to everything else. It’s in a visual-kinesthetic placement, and in color. I suspect that a lot of light, spontaneous things are more thought out than they seem. Classical paintings obviously seem to be outlined and directed, and then there’s the expressionist and romantic paintings that seem to be all color and not worried about outlines—but it’s a question of emphasis. But I think they’re both attitudes, not realities. There’s more spontaneity in classical things than there seems to be and less in spontaneous paintings. People who just get totally spontaneous don’t produce much, anyway.
AB The funny thing, though, is that with a given painting, the planning and the mechanics are clearly there, but when you took at the thing as a whole, its presence seems to be extremely spontaneous. Like it came out of nowhere.
RL Yes, it does have a very wild look, I think.
AB When we were looking at the pictures from the ’70s and ’80s, we wondered what they were saying. We suddenly realized we were completely convinced they were saying something.
RL I don’t think they’re saying anything … .
AB The cartoon balloons are gone, but they must be saying something.
MT As if there were balloons. Because we got so used to hearing them speak—like “Takka, takka” or “I can see the whole room but there’s nobody in it.”
RL Yes. Well, I think they’re saying, This is a landscape, or something like that.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.