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

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If Image Duplicator presents Lichtenstein as a figure whose work is driven by unresolved conflict, the same cannot be said of Lobel. His book, which began as a dissertation, appears entirely comfortable with its identity as an academic text. At times an unquestioning adherence to art-historical discourse leads Lobel astray, as in his treatment of Look Mickey, 1961. Lichtenstein's first properly Pop work, the painting shows a fishing trip on which Donald Duck, staring intently at the water, mistakenly hooks himself on his own line as Mickey Mouse snickers nearby. Lobel grounds his interpretation in Freud's discussion of the role of vision and upright posture in the civilizing process and his analysis of jokes as an outlet for unconscious drives. "Taken in the context of Lichtenstein's project," Lobel argues, "those two figuresˇone raised up and one lowered downˇcould be seen as standing in for the relation between so-called high and low forms of culture." Tying Look Mickey back to its status as the origin of Lichtenstein's Pop style he concludes, "the painting presents a scene in which a seemingly momentous discovery comes at the price of an equally profound degradation." The work thus serves as an allegory of Lichtenstein's ambivalence toward the popular imagery and mechanized facture on which his success as a fine artist was paradoxically based.

While this is an interesting reading, Lobel's utterly earnest use of theoretical language results in statements like "It is the verticalized figure of Mickey who is ascribed the power of authoritative vision" and "We are refused access to the object of Donald's gaze." His high-serious tone and PC refusal to sensationalize discussions of the body miss not only the subversive vulgarity but also the fundamental silliness of the image before us: a cartoon duck sticking its ass in the air. Lichtenstein's ambivalence in Look Mickey is not only turned inward, as Lobel argues. Insofar as Donald is a stand-in for the viewer, the artist's barb is aimed at the audience on whom his success was equally based, at gallerygoers who blindly mistake hype for substance, collectors who treat art as a form of investmentˇand perhaps even art historians who are so enmeshed in the terms of their argument that they miss what is right in front of their faces (or, in this case, behind their rears). A similarly excessive self-reflexivity marks chapter 4 of Lobel's book, which compares Lichtenstein's paintings to Leo Steinberg's and E.H. Gombrich's attempts to map the increasingly fine line between mass culture and high art in "Other Criteria" and Art and Illusion, respectively. It is not clear why Lobel has chosen to make art history the focus of a chapter of his art-historical study or what, beyond drawing attention to a synchronous field of concerns, this juxtaposition adds to our understanding of Lichtenstein's art.

For the most part, though, Lobel navigates the demands of academic inquiry with intelligence and grace, integrating critical speculation, extended formal analysis, and meticulous scholarly research in a compelling new reading of one of the most influential artists of the postwar era. But while Lichtenstein's importance may be beyond dispute, Warhol's project still tends to be treated as representative of Pop art as a wholeˇeven by art historians. By persuasively articulating Lichtenstein's distinctive concerns, Image Duplicator goes a long way to ensuring that Pop's second son will receive his rightful due.

Margaret Sundell is a cofounder of Documents magazine.
 
     
     
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