FIVE ELEMENTS OF CONTEMPORARY ART: APPROPRIATION: LICHTENSTEIN
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Born in New York City in 1923, Roy Lichtenstein developed a strong interest in science as a child and listened to radio shows such as the sci-fi and adventure series Flash Gordon and Mandrake the Magician, which were based on comic strips. He began to draw and paint as a teenager and went to Ohio State University to study fine arts. His studies were interrupted when he was drafted into the army and served three years in Europe during World War II. After the war he completed his degree, and worked odd jobs that included commercial art, window display design, and teaching in a variety of art departments in order to support his family and continue painting.
One of the originators of the 1960s American Pop Art movement, Lichtenstein made his first paintings of enlarged cartoons in 1961 when he was 38 years old. These works included Look Mickey, which was based on a cartoon image appropriated, or borrowed, from a 1960 Walt Disney children’s book about Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. The painting was important to the artist, and he kept it in his studio until he gave it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in 1990. Lichtenstein’s works often feature thick black outlines; a vivid red, yellow, and blue palette; and large, hand-painted benday dots mimicking print patterns in newspaper pictures that can only be seen under magnification. Later, the artist used the comic-strip style to critique art history and poke fun at prominent modern artists and even himself. Prolific and internationally renowned, Lichtenstein also made sculptures in metal and plastic, large-scale public works, murals, and hundreds of fine art prints. He died in New York in 1997.
ABOUT THE ART
Lichtenstein’s own studio is the subject matter of the painting Artist’s Studio No. 1 (Look Mickey). The work is one of a series of Artist Studio paintings in which he revisited his artistic career and reflected on other artists who also painted their studios, such as Henri Matisse (Red Studio, 1911). In this single work, many of Lichtenstein’s earlier images and subjects can be identified: a fragment of his groundbreaking painting Look Mickey; a sofa from a work titled Couch; a Mirror painting, which appears on the wall at the left; and a ceiling molding motif from his Entablature series. Imagery from his Still Life paintings litters the floor—a pewter jug inspired by Matisse, a gaggle of grapefruit and bananas, a sculptor’s modeling stand, and wall-to-wall carpet of diagonal stripes. The rotary phone and paneled door motifs are also borrowed from his earlier work, as is the inward-facing piece leaning in the corner quoting his stretcher-frame paintings. The artist’s references to his pioneering works serve as both a résumé of his achievements and a satire of the art world.
In the 1950s and 1960s, young artists in the United States and England made popular culture their subject matter by appropriating images and objects such as common household items, advertisements for consumer products, celebrity icons, fast food, cartoons, and mass-media imagery from television, magazines, or newspapers. These artists also often used forms of mechanical reproduction that downplayed the idea of originality or the individual mark of the artist. The Pop Art style sought to test the boundaries between art and everyday life.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What elements of this painting are appropriated? Could some of these
things really be found in an artist’s studio?
2. After reading the information above, discuss the sources of the images in this painting. What does it mean when an artist borrows elements from his own earlier works?
3. In what ways is this painting like a cartoon? How has the artist appropriated styles and techniques as well as images?
4. Can an artwork be original and also include appropriated elements?
Appropriation in art is the use of preexisting images and objects in order to create a new work of art. An artist may borrow from a variety of sources, including advertising, mass media, art history, or everyday objects. Imagery can be painted, digitally or photographically reproduced, traced, or attached directly to the artwork. Sometimes the subjects are altered, combined with other images or objects, or placed in a new context. Appropriation questions the idea that all art is original. Artists choose to reuse images or objects for various reasons, including paying homage or tribute to another artist or style, using irony to criticize or mock, forcing a fresh perspective through jarring juxtapositions or unexpected contexts, or challenging viewers to consider the very nature of art.
“All my art is in some way about other art, even if the other art is cartoons.” —Roy Lichtenstein