Image Duplicator: Roy Lichtenstein and the Emergence of Pop Art, by Michael Lobel. New Haven: Yale University Press. 208 pages. $45. BUY NOW

Reviewed by MARGARET SUNDELL

     
 

If Andy Warhol was Pop art's enfant terrible, Roy Lichtenstein was its dutiful son. Warhol was outrageous, sexually ambiguous, and rude to the press. Lichtenstein was an unfailingly polite father of two. Moreover, while Warhol broke artistic rules at every turnˇfrom letting other people paint his pictures to turning his workplace into a veritable nightclubˇLichtenstein toiled diligently, brush in hand, maintaining a traditional studio practice. This difference was made palpable to viewers of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, a 1966 PBS documentary, which figures early on in Michael Lobel's monographic study, Image Duplicator: Roy Lichtenstein and the Emergence of Pop Art. Warhol is shown blowing up a silver Mylar balloon, dropping in on the Velvet Underground, and cruelly mocking his interviewer by parroting his questions back at him verbatim. Lichtenstein, by contrast, sits calmly in his studio, surrounded by half-finished canvases, eloquently explaining his method for turning comic-book heroes and commercial products into works of high art.

Like much media coverage of the time, Lobel notes, "the film articulates a clear distinction between the two artists; not only do they correspond roughly to aesthetic and anti-aesthetic positions, but on a more popular level Warhol in his leather jacket and sunglasses is the delinquent to Lichtenstein's wholesome achiever." But as is often true of good sons, an obedient facade can hide troubled depthsˇones that Lobel aims to exhume. What, his book asks, is gained by upholding the view that emerged in the early 1960s of Lichtenstein as Pop's "safe" practitioner: as an artist who refused to allow his work to be compromised by advertising and mass entertainment even as he made them his exclusive subjects? And, perhaps more important, what has this image of Lichtenstein caused us to overlook? As evidenced by both his studio practice and his public statements, Lichtenstein clearly rejected the Faustian deal with pop culture that Warhol so brilliantly struck. But, according to Lobel, his resistance was neither as seamless nor as successful as it might first appear. Rather, as Lobel convincingly argues throughout the course of his book, Lichtenstein's paintings are structured by an ongoing attempt to negotiate a set of interrelated but ultimately irreconcilable terms: the singular object and the mass-produced copy; the artist's signature and the corporate trademark; the human body and the machine.

The method by which Lobel addresses these subjects could be described as ecumenical. Defying ingrained divisions between social and formalist approaches to art history, he embraces both. Lobel's consideration of the imbrication of body and machine in Lichtenstein's art, for example, includes an iconographic analysis of Lichtenstein's depiction of fighter pilots peering into viewfinders. But Lobel pays equal attention to the implications of the method, which involved hand-copying mass-produced pictures, putting them on an opaque projector, then tracing them onto canvasˇa laborious procedure that, as Lobel points out, forced him to physically mimic the rote gestures of a machine. Lobel's chapter on trademarks begins with formal analysis: Lichtenstein consistently removed or obscured the brand names of commercial productsˇa move that allowed him to bring a modernist interest in the relation of figure to ground to bear on the representation of golf balls and rubber tires. From there, Lobel builds a complex argument on the fate of artistic identity in the age of mechanical reproduction: By eliminating the preexisting "identities" of the commodities he appropriated, Lichtenstein was able to assert his own painterly concerns. But, in this process of "Lichtensteinization," the function of "signature style" veers uncomfortably close to the logic of the trademark: The brand name haunts Lichtenstein's attempt to wrest a unique artistic identity out of the representation of mass-produced objects, like an uncanny return of the repressed.

 
     
     
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