Restriction on Form

Whaam! Roy Lichtenstein 1963

“Transformation is a strange word to use. It implies that art transforms. It doesn’t, it just plain forms. Artists have never worked with the model—just with the painting. What you’re really saying is that an artist like Cézanne transforms what we think the painting ought to look like into something he thinks it ought to look like. He’s working with paint, not nature; he’s making a painting, he’s forming. I think my work is different from comic strips—but I wouldn’t call it transformation; I don’t think that whatever is meant by it is important to art. What I do is form, whereas the comic strip is not formed in the sense I’m using the word; the comics have shapes but there has been no effort to make them intensely unified. The purpose is different, one intends to depict and I intend to unify. And my work is actually different from comic strips in that every mark is really in a different place, however slight the difference seems to some. The difference is not always great, but it is crucial. People also consider my work to be anti-art in the same way they consider it pure depiction, ‘not transformed’. I don’t feel it is anti-art. There is no neat way of telling whether a work of art is composed or not; we’re too comfortable with ideas that art is the battleground for interaction, that with more and more experience you become more able to compose. It’s true, everybody accepts that; it’s just that the idea no longer has any power. [Roy Lichtenstein in conversation with
Gene Swenson

Roy Lichtenstein girl with A Ball 1961

“The 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.” [Roy Lichtenstein in conversation with April Bernard]

Roy Lichtenstein Little Big Painting 1965

“… I think I’m really interested in what kind of an image they have and what it really looks like as well as the formal aspect of it. Let it go at that. I’ll just do it anyway. I’m interested in the kind of image in the same way that one would develop a classical form, an ideal head for instance. Some people don’t really believe in this any more, but that was the idea, in a way, of classical work: ideal figures of people and godlike people. Well, the same thing has been developed in cartoons. It’s not called classical, it’s called a cliche. Well I’m interested in my work’s redeveloping these classical ways, except that it’s not classical, it’s like a cartoon. I’m interested because of the impact it has when you look at it, not because it does anything formally. As a matter of fact, it’s really contradictory to form, it’s a restriction on form. I mean, you have to take into account something else while you’re forming this painting. The hair, the eyes, whatever it is, have to be symbols which – it’s sort of funny to say this – are eternal in this way. In realising of course that they’re not eternal. But they will have this power of being the way to draw something. I don’t know how to express it beyond that, but if it didn’t quite look like the kind of eye I wanted it to look like and the kind of mouth I wanted it to look like, I would be changing it; it would bother me a lot. It isn’t purely a formal problem. I’m not sure exactly why I do this, but I think that it’s to establish the hardest kind of archetype that I can. There’s a sort of formidable appearance that the work has when this is achieved. I think it also doesn’t become achieved unless it’s in line formally; just by itself it doesn’t work. In other words, the enlarged cartoon itself would not do anything; it would be a kind of joke. But I think it’s when the formal and this aspect of it being the right kind of eye come about, you have something. I think, really, that Picasso is involved in this. In spite of the fact that it seems as though he could do almost any kind of variation of any kind of eye or ear or head, there are certain ones that were very powerful and strong because of the kind of symbolism that he employed. And I don’t know the meaning of this. It’s what I think I’m up to, anyway.” [Roy Lichtenstein in conversation with David Sylvester]

One Comment

  • Paul Corio

    Cartoons and comics are the bete noire of American painting in the same way that Europeans can never completely get away from surrealism. There’s one big difference, though: the former relies heavily on a the concept of critique. Without the ironic distance and the cultural and political implications of critique, all of the participants (artists, writers, curators, collectors) would be the just the same as all those grown-ups who eagerly line up for the next Iron Man movie. I think Kierkegaard would classify that rhetorical sleight of hand as leveling.

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