Soap Opera ArtistIf all the people who secretly love soap operas, but wouldn't admit it even at gunpoint, were herded to the same place at the same time they'd overflow a major league stadium. They'd also probably elect Roy Lichtenstein their favourite painter. We often think of Lichtenstein in conjunction with comic books, and certainly there is this stylistic element in his work, but actually much of his painting is more closely related in terms of theme and content to the pretty faces and unhappy plot lines of Days of our Lives or Another World. One of Lichtenstein's earliest, and most famous Pop Art paintings is a 4' x 4' canvas depicting a close-up of an attractive, but troubled young lady talking on the phone. It's entitled Oh, Jeff...I Love You, Too...But... Painted in 1964, this one work encapsulates the plot lines of dozens of soaps, sitcoms, mini-series, and movies, from Birth of a Nation to Titanic. (Oh, Jack, I love you but...the ship is sinking.)
Lichtenstein was born in 1923, and while he was not necessarily the first artist to explore pop culture in relationship to high art, he certainly was one of the first Americans to do so. (British artists such as Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi created some of the first examples of this type of art back in the early 1950s.) And while we smile and look fondly upon Liechtenstein's work today, at the time it was created, it ruffled the feathers of quite a number of art critics. The public loved it, even if they didn't quite understand it. The critics, on the other hand, understood it only too well, and saw this "mixing" of pop and high culture as a threat to their preconceived notions of Modernism, mainstream art, and where art was "going". Where it was going was not, to their way of thinking, in the direction of comic strips, Brillo Boxes, Coke Bottles, or Marilyn Monroe portraits ad nauseum.
Today, we tend to dismiss Pop Art as something of a momentary "blip" on the snowy radar screen of art history. And certainly its brief heyday in the 1960s would tend to support this notion. However, coming as it did near the end of the Modernist era, we have to wonder if the fears of critics such as Clement Greenberg, who sought to shape art history into a neat progression from point "A" in the past, to point "B" in the future, weren't entirely unfounded. Pop shook up the art world, stretching definitions of art well past what even some of the Abstract Expressionists were willing to accept at the time. There was ambivalence about it. The viewer, the critics, sometimes even the artist themselves, were uncertain whether Pop was embracing popular culture or satirising it.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
10 June 1998