Unreal Nature

March 7, 2017

To Joke About What We Mind Most About

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… there is this contradiction between cool in the treatment and soul in the subject-matter …

This is from ‘Lichtenstein’ (1969) in About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-96 by David Sylvester (1996):

Some artists like to think they are working in the dark, others that they are firmly in control. The preference seems almost more a matter of generation than of individual temperament. Most of the artists whose styles were formed in the 1940s subscribed to the idea that making art meant feeling one’s way through unknown territory. Robert Motherwell spoke — as if wearing Whitman’s beard — of the painting process as a ‘voyaging into the night, one knows not where, on an unknown vessel.’

… The typical art of the Sixties is as different from this as Colonel Borman’s journey to the moon is from Lévi-Strauss’s journey into the tropics. It is carefully planned, tightly organized, precise in execution. It is technological (as in its use of silk-screen and spray-gun or as in sculpture ordered from the factory by telephone). It is also handsomely financed; and this is not incidental.

[line break added] The art of the Forties was an art of outsiders, its audience other outsiders. The art of the Sixties has a public and a publicity machine: it is soundly professional and socially acceptable. It is sure of itself and has an air of certainty and decision. The artist, like a good executive, makes up his mind what he will do and does it, or gets it done to his specifications.

Lichtenstein is one of those who make a point of painting in a quasi-machine-like way, following a predetermined course.

… He evidently relishes the element of certainty, the knowing ‘exactly what it’s going to look like.’ And the pictures themselves, hard and precise and cool, look as if they were about certainty. But they aren’t about certainty — rather the opposite, as we shall see — and it’s largely the interplay in them between certainty and uncertainty that makes them go on as they do being surprising though they have the look of an art that is not going to sustain its impact.

… The certainty evaporates as soon as Lichtenstein starts talking about the cliché’s relevance to life, as against its usefulness to art. When I asked him, not too seriously, whether he liked girls who looked like the cliché girls he painted, he threw the ball back by saying — and this wasn’t sophistry — that the kind he painted were ‘really made up of black lines and red dots.

[line break added] I see it that abstractly, that it’s very hard to fall for one of these creatures, to me, because they’re not really reality to me. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a clichéd ideal, a fantasy ideal, of a woman that I would be interested in. But I think I have in mind what they should look like for other people.’

lichtenstein_yellow_green_brushstrokes
Yellow and Green Brushstrokes, 1966

… In the brushstrokes series, as in the cartoon images of love and war, Lichtenstein takes subjects with a high emotional charge and deals with them as commercial art would ‘by a very removed method,’ as he puts it. ‘It’s really not so much that I really use that method but that it appears as though I’ve used it and as though the thing had been done by a committee.’

I feel that his best work is generally work in which there is this contradiction between cool in the treatment and soul in the subject-matter — as against the still lifes, the landscapes and parodies of Jazz Age ornament. It is a contradiction that corresponds to one of our most needed mechanisms of defence: to joke about what we mind most about.

Lichtenstein’s method of doing this is the inverse of Jasper Johns’s, the artist whose ironic use of common emblems showed the way to Lichtenstein and the other creators of Pop. Johns takes cool subjects and paints them with soul, or what looks like soul. Lichtenstein takes soulful subjects and paints them with cool, or what looks like cool.

My most recent previous post from Sylvester’s book is here.

-Julie

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