February 9, 2011

Is You Is or Is You Ain’t my Artwork

I was trained as a fine artist, which necessitates using a malingering modifier–fine–for purely conventional purposes. This term retains its meaning, despite the fact that it seems like a Beaux-Arts anachronism, as tired as plaster casts of Greek statuary. Ideologically speaking, I dislike the term, and the view of culture it propounds. Especially inasmuch as it aligns itself with a vaguely progressive view of human affairs, according to which all persons move toward greater self-realization and just rewards for their labors. Yet such rewards, often taking the form of simple credit, routinely do not accrue to producers of meaner cultural works. I speak generally of the decorative, industrial and communication arts, but especially graphic works in popular circulation. I’ve opined on this before. The Robert O. Reid illustration below was a subject of such a discussion.

This state of affairs prevails because, according to habits of mind in high cultural precincts, such works are not made by individual people, but rather by “the culture.” Which legitimizes their theft sans attribution. Money is a different subject, into which I shall not wander.
Case in point: the drastically different fates of Roy Lichtenstein’s comic panel paintings, and the printed materials from which they were largely copied. The former have been subject to inflationary bloat for some time, while the latter have been systematically de-emphasized–effectively suppressed–by otherwise freedom-loving officialdom d’art.

The detective work performed by David Barsalou has shown the clear relationship between comic book panel designs by Irv Nowick, Jack Kirby, et. al on the one hand, and on the other, Lichtenstein’s large scale copies of them presented as his own. Sure, we can call this the cutting edge of appropriation circa 1962, but show me the justification for failing to credit the blatant and by now firmly established relationship between them.

Thankfully, Barsalou has been on the case for some time now. He’s tracked down hundreds of panels and matched them with Lichtenstein’s copies. His work has gotten a bump in attention in the last few weeks on comics blogs. Brian Childs provides a roundup at Comics Alliance, including a snippet from that–stunningly–describes a historical relationship between Irv Novick and Roy Lichtenstein.

Matt Duarte picks up the thread at Weekly Crisis, and provides an account of a visit to the Tate Modern, where Lichtenstein’s WHAAM–a copy of Novick’s original panel–hangs. I’ve posted Duarte’s photo of the painting in situ.

The New York Times provided another angle of vision on this discussion just last week. Judith H. Dobrzynsky’s article on the newly re-installed American Indian galleries at the Denver Art Museum explores a fascinating parallel. I am a fan of this museum, particularly its American Indian collections. (The departmental structure of museum itself presents a fascinating set of taxonomic questions, but that’s for another day.) The article focused on the curatorial work of Nancy Blomberg, who I interviewed several years ago on a research trip for a book I’m working on. Blomberg and her colleagues have re-contextualized works previously designated only by tribe with artist’s credits when possible, and Anonymous when not.

Dobrzynsky writes of the installation, “For the first time many of the works on display are attributed to individual artists instead of just their tribes. It is a revolution in museum practice that many scholars hope will spread, raising the stature of American Indian artists and elevating their work from the category of artifacts to the more exalted realm of art.”


I applaud the attribution, for exactly the reasons outlined above. An overdue adjustment, by any stretch. But the goal ought not be the fabulous power of Art. Our aim should be a fulsome multidimensional reflection on humans and what they produce. I am unenthusiastic about “elevating” items into “exalted realm of art.” For God’s sake, people, lose the vertical axis! All things that people make are artifacts. The categorical exemption that works of art effectively enjoy from this reality is not to be extended or expanded, but shrunk!

A line-up of selected works on the Denver Art Museum website chosen to represent the collection raises a question or two. The annotations do not include dates, and the dread word "masterpiece" makes an appearance. Temporal reality still matters. Beware the dangers of over-correction. (The DAM site includes a stern warning about image use. Below, a drawing I made in their galleries in the summer of 2008. Never inked it. But I might yet.)

To think about an object contextually–how was it used, by whom, how much did it cost, how was it distributed, how was it made?–is to think about things in a social world. You can ask these questions of paintings just as you can ask them of Northwest Indian masks or comic books. Or amalgams of all three (see top).

Whatever else they are, paintings by blue-chip artists are high-end retail products. Lichtenstein’s estate is no friend of David Barsalou, because quotations of authorless comics are less a threat to prestige–and price structures–than panels by identifiable people. On the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation WHAAM page, the very comic is cited, but without a creator. Robert Kanigher, the editor shows up. But Irv went poof.

I suspect that Irv’s revenge will come in future decades. When it does it will probably take the form of deflated values.

But beware claims of singular genius in the source material, too. The comic book business was–is–a workshop industry. Ever since Siegel and Shuster sued over the rights to Superman, the division of labor between writers and artists, pencilers and inkers and letterers, has made ownership a matter of diffusion, aesthetically as well as legally. The company owned the intellectual property; the team owned the bragging rights. In a way, Lichtenstein’s theft of these images just makes the circle a little larger.

Finally, I think I’d like to start a stupid contest. Who can find the goofiest claim for a work of art? I can’t very well enter my own contest, but I can provide an example. I set this aside when I first read it because I thought it represented a monumental misreading of material facts. In last September 23’s New York Times, Roberta Smith (an interesting critic when looking at the right art) wrote the following in a review of Lichtenstein’s drawings:

Lichtenstein’s art forms an ode to the Americana of comic books and commercial art, but it has about it a brisk cosmopolitanism that is also New York at its most New York, which is in the fall. The closest analogy may be musical: the songs of Broadway composers like Cole Porter, which radiate the energy of vernacular language being put in perfect working order.

So: Cole Porter wrote Autumn in New York? Wait, no, that was Vernon Duke! I guess Cole reinscribed the melody on a new sheet of paper, just a lot bigger.

Images: Janet Smalley, Southwest American Indian paper dolls, Jack and Jill Magazine, August 1950; Robert O. Reid, periodical illustration, circa 1940; Irv Novick, air combat comic panel, All-American Men at War #89, January-February 1962; Roy Lichtenstein, WHAAM, magna on canvas, 1963, photograph by Matt Duarte, 2010(?); D.B. Dowd, Northwest American Indian Gallery, Denver Art Museum, pencil drawing on sketchbook spread, 2008; Joe Shuster, cover illustration, Action Comics #22, March 1940.

POSTED BY DB DOWD AT 5:16 PM 1 COMMENTS ‪Frank Zweegers said…
Nice, interesting article.
February 15, 2011 10:41 AM



Blog post that draws on your excellent work‏
From: DB Dowd ([email protected])
Sent:Wed 6/18/08 4:41 AM
To: [email protected]

Dear David:
Came across your work on Roy Lichtenstein today. See below post, as well as the one that precedes it.

DB Dowd
Professor of Visual Communication
and American Culture Studies
Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts
Washington University in St. Louis
[email protected]…
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
More on Lichtenstein and Sources

UPDATE: new link posted below to David Barsalou’s Lichtenstein source panel site.

Today I had ten minutes to kill in a bookstore, and on the heels of the other day’s post (immediately below this one) about Roberta Smith’s breathless (and somewhat thoughtless) response to a Roy Lichtenstein show at Gagosian, I came across a Taschen book on Lichtenstein. I picked it up to review the treatment of sources.

Amid the prose and reproductions, I found one small thumbnail (in black and white, of course, despite the color reproductions throughout) of a source panel for Takka Takka, a painting from 1962. The comic source is substantially the same, with certain simplifications and adjustment of the text panel.

There is reference to the source panel in the essay, but there is no effort invested whatsoever in identifying where it appeared, who would have published it, or who the cartoonist was who produced it in the first place. It was as if the image had been dug up like a hunk of coal–a natural occurrence, not a cultural one. It was identified as a "comic."

Last year, I collaborated on an exhibition on the illustrator Al Parker which appeared at the Norman Rockwell Museum and also at the Kemper Museum on the campus of Washington University, where I teach. In the latter venue, the Parker show was up at the same time as a show titled Beauty and the Blonde, which aspired to deconstruct the image of the blonde in American culture. It was curated by Catharina Manchanda, and provided the expected cheeky "critiques" courtesy of Mel Ramos, Tom Wesselman, Warhol, and more meaningfully gendered work by Cindy Sherman, Lorna Simpson, and others. Of course Roy made an appearance, with Crying Girl, from 1963. All in all, it was satisfying show, if somewhat predictable.

The point of the anecdote is this: in the front room of the Blonde show, across from a copiously documented exhibition of midcentury women’s magazine work, appeared a group of works from "popular culture," which in this usage seems akin to the above-mentioned coal vein in the Taschen book. Movie posters, calendar pin ups and other illustrated materials were used to set up and play off other works in the first room, particularly a Mel Ramos. Ramos and the artists were credited. But the pin up illustrators, poster designers, illustrators and cartoonists who generated the abundance of material in the room were not. It almost certainly never occurred to anybody to look them up, because ideologically speaking they don’t exist as cultural producers. They merely represent the convergence of mass forces on our hero of sensation, l’artiste. For all the progressive noises made by high cultural actors of all sorts, it truly amazes me how dismissive the enterprise can be. We’re all for "breaking down boundaries," between, you know, sculpture and painting.

As a critic and producer, some time ago I consciously chose to reposition myself in the realm of visual culture defined broadly, and sidestep the simultaneously elaborate and narrow problems of art. I’m happy to deal in artifacts and aesthetic attributes, as opposed to aesthetic objects and significantly more segregated cultural precincts.

After I got back from the bookstore, I rooted around some online and discovered, to my deep astonishment, that an art historian named David Barsalou has tracked down more than 140 original comic panels that Lichtenstein copied with slight modifications.

Barsalou’s flickr page shows the originals with a small copy of Lichtenstein’s image inset. For example, we learn that the famed BLAM is a copy of a Russell Heath comic panel from DC Comics All-American Men of War #89, published in February of 1962. The painting was produced in the same year.

Bravo to Barsalou for pursuing this material. A proper accounting of cultural practice would engage Heath and the original comic in a discussion of sorts with Lichtenstein and the painting. The anonymity of the source in art historical contexts should no longer be countenanced; subsequent editions of American Art surveys which feature Lichtenstein’s work should also include documentation of the source work when it is known.
Posted by DB Dowd at 3:05 PM
Labels: roy lichtenstein, russell heath
Dan Z. said…
After a scroll through of Barsalou’s site it’s amazing that in EVERY SINGLE CASE the original image is better than Lichtenstein’s. Not just the drawings (obviously!), but even the stuff Roy is usually lauded for (composition, humor, impact, emphasis on mechanical color, etc.). He didn’t make a single one more interesting in any way, even by accident.
June 17, 2008 10:29 PM
Dan Z. said…
That came off harsh. I should add the disclaimer that I am a cartoonist myself and the truth is that I can’t look at Lichtenstein painting without cringing on the basis of the terrible lettering alone.
June 17, 2008 10:37 PM
DB Dowd said…
Dan, it is somewhat difficult to respond to this corpus of material and attendant critical practice in a way that does not seem harsh or at the very least exasperated. What is one to do in the face of such profound irony, or deep cunning? One shrugs it off, I guess, and secedes. (The best lack all conviction…)
June 18, 2008 12:08 AM
John Hendrix said…
Really good thinking in these last two posts, red.

I guess Lichtenstien’s fame could not have existed if they things he was making were his own drawings, good or bad. So then, are these critics continuing to celebrate contextual re-appropriation as a fresh idea?
Aren’t these just artifacts to us post post-modernists?

I want to know how long it took Barsalou to do that book. He’s probably read EVERY comic between 1940-1970.
June 18, 2008 2:50 PM
Adrian said…
Someone should make an art book of Lichtenstiens with all the original work he stole from side by side with his. It should be sold on Lichtenstein’s name yet all the money should go to the original artists and estates of the original artists and none should go to Lichtenstein. It would just be logical in a karmic sense(first and only time I’ll ever write or say that). And since no legal action was ever taken against Lichtenstein I assume this would get away for the same reasons(if statute of limitations was not the reason). This would open up a whole can of worms that would destroy his unearned legacy.

July 3, 2008 5:27 PM…

Posted by David Barsalou MFA on 2005-09-05 17:58:27

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