On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

ROY LICHTENSTEIN: PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE 1991

My memories of Roy Lichtenstein go so far back that they might almost be called prenatal, both for him and for me. For most of the world, Lichtenstein was born at the Leo Castelli Gallery in February-March 1962, at an exhibition that dumbfounded with horror or delight everybody who saw it, and that can still jolt the memory. But by an odd coincidence, our professional paths had crossed exactly eight years earlier, in 1954. As a graduate student of art history, I began at just that time to earn some extra money by writing back-page reviews for Art Digest, and one of my very first chores was to preview and write a paragraph or two about a show to be held at the John Heller Gallery in March by an artist I had never heard of. His name was Roy F. Lichtenstein (the F., like my own middle initial, H., was soon to disappear). In fact, I never thought of him or heard of him again until the explosion of Pop art in 1962, when his work so totally unbalanced me with its outrageous but tonic assault on everything that was supposed to be true, good, and beautiful, that I completely forgot I had once encountered his name and work before. And when, just now, I decided to track down my first written words about Lichtenstein ( Art Digest, February 15, 1954), I was amazed that this Proustian madeleine still couldn't stir up any recall of those early paintings and even more amazed at what I said about them. I complained that his subjects, then taken from American cowboy and Indian themes, were at odds with his style, which was clearly indebted to the Braque contingent of the School of Paris. My diagnosis concluded with the comment that "caution and good taste characterize his personality."

Caution and good taste? As it turned out, the overwhelming effect of the 1962 show, whether you loved it or hated it, was anything but that. In fact, the walls of the Castelli Gallery seemed to have been invaded by a sudden attack of the ugliest kind of reality that had always been kept far away from the sacred spaces where art was to be worshiped. Next to Lichtenstein's crass emblems of American grass-roots truth--fast food, washing machines, comic strips--even such earlier forays into the public domain as Johns's flags and Rauschenberg's urban detritus looked positively old-fashioned and handmade.

I remember being totally shocked by all of this, but the shock was one of release and rejuvenation. First I smiled with amazement at the colossal, confident gall of an artist who could insult so many pieties by embracing all these images we lived with but had somehow managed to censor out of the art world; and then I rubbed my eyes with equal disbelief at what appeared to be the unprecedented coarseness of the way in which these confrontations

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