Episode 27: Roy Lichtenstein's Ohhh...Alright... (1964)
VOICE 1: Okay, so what am I seeing right now?
VOICE 2: Mmm, I’m looking at a woman, and she’s got…kind of comic style.
VOICE 1: The style is a comic book style. Um, but like a closely cropped comic book. It feels like it’s just one panel, like maybe the panels previous were zoomed out. She has bright red hair, and she has red dots all over her face.
VOICE 2: She says “oh, alright.”
VOICE 1: [dejected] “Ohhh…alright…”
VOICE 3: [surprised] “Oh! …alright.”
VOICE 4: [angry] “Ohhhhhh. Alright.”
VOICE 5: [guilty] “Ohhhhhhh. Alriiiiiiiight.” [laughs]
VOICE 6: Could be like [aroused], “oooooh, alright,” like in a good way, or like in a bad way…
TAMAR: How would you say it in a bad way?
VOICE 6: Like, [exasperated] “ungh, alright,” kind of like, [eyeroll] “okay.”
VOICE 1: Because also the “ohhh, alright…”, you have no idea what it’s about, and it feels like you’re missing something beforehand.
VOICE 3: I dunno, there’s something really melancholy about it, even though it’s like there are these really bright, intense colors, there’s… I don’t know.
VOICE 1: She doesn’t look… satisfied? She looks a little bit… sad? And a little bit resigned?
VOICE 3: Her eyebrows. Like, literally, it’s her eyebrows. And that kind of like, look – and she’s not really really looking at anything, and I guess not many of us do when we’re on the phone, but there’s something about just kind of zoning out and staring into space.
VOICE 1: And her words kind of reflect that resignation in her face. Um, the three, there’s three H’s and three dots. So it has this feeling that it… it goes off. It just goes off into the ether. And just kind of like a – she doesn’t want to be saying “alright,” the “oh” is like a stalling mechanism on her part, like [sadly] “ohhhhhhhh…alright.” It’s like someone called to say that he wasn’t picking her up for a date.
VOICE 5: [disgusted] “Ohhhhh. Alright. Mmmmughhh.” [laughs] For added affect. Oh…
Back in the day at the Avishai breakfast table, between the cheese melted on toast and the cocoa I used to drink out of a straw, there was the daily ritual of splitting up the newspaper. Parents would take the news of the day, big sister would take the arts section, big brother would take the sports section, and little Tamar would get the comics. It never occurred to me to want anything else – it seemed like the simplicity of the cartoons and text bubbles was meant for kids. And it also never occurred to me until later in life that just because comics are easy to process, it doesn’t mean they’re easy to write. I’ve personally written enough songs by now – a different kind of writing, to be sure, but equally preoccupied with brevity – to realize how unbelievably challenging economy of language can be, especially as it’s constrained by the structure of meter, or in a cartoonist’s case, a limited number of frames. It made me understand why the cartoonist Caroline Duffy, heroine of my favorite late-90s NBC sitcom, Caroline in the City, was so affronted when her oafish boyfriend Del asked her, “what’s really so hard about drawing a comic strip? I mean, it’s just boom, boom, boom, funny!”
What makes drawing comics so hard, under the guise of something so simple that kids prefer them to text, is that you’ve got to pack an incredible narrative punch into those little boxes. The way cartoonists set scenes with opening frames, or set up characters with a specific facial expression or a gesture, are all in the service of giving the reader a point of entry into a little narrative universe. And cartoonists have to walk the line between offering us a glimpse of a world that already exists – where we’re just passing through and catching the figures in their moment of funny – and creating a sequence with a resolution, the funny part of the boom boom boom funny!. In other words, we are meant to believe that there’s a world where Garfield has woken up, decided it would be satisfying to kick Odie off the table, and then after he kicks Odie off the table, goes on with his day. But within that, all we actually see is the table-kicking, a contained little narrative moment of its own.
This universe-creation doesn’t really sound all that different from a painting. An artist has always made the decision as to what part of the story is being depicted within that frame, while we fill in the narrative gaps. But a key difference is that comics have text. Captions, speech bubbles. Cartoonists aren’t just artists, they’re writers too. And when we read something, we have a different expectation than when we just look at something – we expect a sequence and a forward momentum towards a resolution, even if the comic is only a single frame. And because comics most often deal in humor – be it jokes for children or incisive political commentary – that resolution is an unambiguous punchline. And there’s a trade-off here: where we gain in the clarity of reading a comic, we lose the ambiguity of contemplating a painting, and all its multiple interpretations. Plenty of people will say they don’t “get” a Rothko, but that only speaks to its depth and complexity. There are a lot of ways to get him. Meanwhile, you’d have to be pretty dense to not “get” a Garfield strip. It just isn’t sophisticated enough to be up for interpretation. Which is kind of a relief, given how many there are.
This is all to say that we know that the individual frames of comic strips need to be narratively dense. We also know that taking that frame out of its sequence results in an image that is narratively incomplete. So what happens when you isolate one of these frames and hang it onto a museum wall? What happens when you decide that a moment in a comic strip is actually open to interpretation? Well, wham bam pow! Enter Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.
Lichtenstein was born in 1923, and had his artistic moment in the company of fellow Pop stars Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, artists who followed the tradition of Marcel Duchamp by delighting in taking something we recognize, something pre-existing and so ubiquitous that it might as well be invisible, and tweaking its context so that we see it again, in a new and different way. Like, for example, say, putting a urinal in a museum, or treating a Campbell’s Soup logo like it’s fine art, or pointing out that powerfully symbolic flags are just shapes and colors. And what Lichtenstein in particular was curious about was what happens when you subvert an audience’s expectations of a comic strip, when you take something so mass-produced and disposable – both in its physical form and its plotlines – and give it the privileges of high art. And what happens is you take away the punchline and give it back some ambiguity. You allow it to be contemplated. You get a freeze frame of a vignette with no supporting universe, and we realize that we can’t help but to fill in the rest of the narrative, which is of course always going to be more nuanced and sophisticated than a comic strip narrative, because real life is more nuanced than a comic strip. Left to our own devices, we’ll always opt for a better story. And I should add that if this sounds familiar, it’s because we explored this idea of an artist showing us just a glimpse of a narrative and anticipating that we fill in the rest, when we looked at Christian Boltanski all the way back in episode 2. There, it was a little girl’s Holocaust narrative, and this is a light-hearted episode about Pop Art and comic strips, but the basic principle remains the same.
So back to Lichtenstein, who, like all Pop artists, was fascinated with this intersection of high art and low art. He loved comics in particular, and, challenged by his son to draw Mickey Mouse “as good as the comics did,” he explored the medium more deeply. He was struck by how the comic books of the 1960s tackled all the same subjects that you would find in paintings – love, war, angst – and yet pared them down to something so highly emotional and highly impersonal. People became stereotyped representations of their times: comics of the 60s used stock signifiers of American mass culture – the beautiful people engaged in melodramas, the square jaws of the quintessential male; the blonde hair and agonized tears of the quintessential female. Don and Betty Draper, basically. And readers couldn’t help but lose themselves in the vacuous, vicarious escape of an entertaining and easily forgotten narrative – remember our recent foray into kitsch in episode 26. And hey, I get it. I can’t even tell you how great a day it would be at camp when my care package arrived bursting with new Betty and Veronica comics, how pleasurable and forgettable that perfect literary sugar rush that the experience of reading them really was.
And this sense of one-and-done have always been a part of the comic book experience; yesterday’s strips were always meant to line today’s trash bins and make room for the new day’s strip. We talked about this way back in episode 3, when we looked at propaganda and political caricature – something mass-produced and of its moment that speaks only to its moment was always meant to be disposable. Great for politics, but, as it turns out, not so great for fine art that is meant to speak to the ages. So how does Lichtenstein elevate the comic to fine art? How does he take something so meant to be temporary and make it timeless?
The answer lies not in the details, but in the generalities. Take, for example, one of his most famous paintings, “Drowning Girl,” which depicts a woman’s face and hand just about to go beneath the stylized waves. Her tears are indistinguishable from the splash as she plaintively moans, “I don’t care, I’d rather sink than call Brad for help.” The painting is closely cropped still from its source material, DC Comics’ “Secret Hearts” #83, and the cropping, as we’ll see, is everything. Because Lichtenstein takes something so narratively predictable, so set in stereotypes, and adds a sense of enigmatic nuance by removing the specificity of her prescribed narrative. Her original line was “I don’t care if I have a cramp,” which Lichtenstein shortened into the much more ambiguous “I don’t care.” In the original strip, her blond, befuddled boyfriend is on a capsized boat behind her, allowing us the easy assumption that he’s responsible for the whole mess. But his absence here allows her struggle and this mystery – what on earth could Brad have done that she’d rather die than ask for his help – to dominate a more interesting narrative that is taking place in the viewer’s head. The lack of specificity turns her into the timeless representation of all 1960s Frustrated American Womanhood. In other words, the actual Betty Draper.
And we see the exact same thing happening when we dive into this painting, “Ohhh, Alright,” which, non-sequitur fun fact, was once owned by Steve Martin. The canvas depicts a redheaded, blue-eyed bombshell caressing a phone with all the tenderness that we assume the person on the other end is denying her. The drawn-out h’s and ellipses of the ohhh dot dot dot alright dot dot dot speak to a sense of resignation, although to be fair, we can’t be sure if she’s sighing, grunting, or purring the words. When I interviewed viewers at the Art Institute, I was amazed at how many ways this phrase be interpreted. The canvas is based on a panel from Secret Hearts #88 from June 1963, which shows the central figure as an equally pillow-lipped blonde who is responding to a jagged phone text bubble of her boyfriend breaking a date. All the ambiguity is cleared up: her name is Nancy, and he’s got an “important business appointment.” And again, it’s that kind of specificity that makes this original comic so disposable. True, we don’t know if Nancy’s boyfriend does this to her a lot, or the nature of this business appointment, but we know enough to move onto the next page. But here, she’s an unnamed heroine, stuck in a suspended state of disappointment, not just the quintessential 60s bombshell but the quintessential jilted lover, with any number of narratives that brought her to this place, and any number of resolutions. And this is where we realize how brilliant a a storyteller Lichtenstein is, how deft he was at picking the perfect moment of narrative ambiguity. John Updike described the work of Edward Hopper, another artist who played with the contrast between specificity and generalization, as “always on the verge of telling a story.” Lichtenstein is always smack in the center of the story, the middle panel of the strip, with its beginning and ending left ambiguous, the absence ready to be supplemented by our own imaginations.
And everything we need for our imaginations to run down the field is provided in the simple consternated line between her eyebrows. This is where we dive into Lichtenstein’s aesthetic technique. He takes the minimalism of the comic book style and celebrates how much can be expressed in such a simplified visual language, and even co-opting as an artistic style the very same techniques that comic printers would use to save money, like reusing drawings – my beloved Betty and Veronica, of course, are the exact same face just with different hairdos – and cheap processing. Lichtenstein does this most explicitly with his trademark use of Ben-Day dots. The Ben-Day printing process was named for the illustrator and printer, Benjamin Henry Day Jr., who developed the technique in 1879. And, to explain it, a quick word on printing: if you’ve ever changed a printer toner cartridge, you’ll recognize the four process colors, cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, which act as the foundation for the rich blended colors you’ll ultimately get in a printed image. The Ben-Day process printed these process colors as small colored dots that were either closely or widely spaced, or overlapping, which created, from a distance, the appearance of solid color. It was a cost-effective way to fill in pulp comic books in the 1950s and 60s, especially large spaces like skin tone and backgrounds. These dots were a hallmark of Lichtenstein’s style, meticulously reproduced – he was, after all, one of the few Pop artists who was primarily a painter and could therefore capture this style with such skill. And as Andy Warhol did with newspapers photos, Lichtenstein would clip a comic from the book, use an opaque projector to project the original drawing onto his canvas, trace the general image, and go to work re-contextualizing the image: eliminating some details and emphasizing others.
Of course, this technique, and the results, opened him up to critics accusing him of plagiarism, and, worse, of copying kitsch, the low-art double-whammy. Lichtenstein defended his work by saying that he was unifying his source materials with fine art, saying, "I am nominally copying, but I am really restating the copied thing in other terms. In doing that, the original acquires a totally different texture. It's dots and flat colors and unyielding lines.” And it’s true. You could make the argument that there’s nothing less artistic in the transference of comic book heroine to canvas than a sitter into a portrait, or field into a landscape. All requires the application of paint, and the subjectivity of the artist. Lichtenstein fired back at his critics and what they considered to be acceptable high art at the time, Abstract Expressionism, with his own series of brushstroke paintings, which used the brushstroke, the very thing he was seen to have abandoned, as the subject matter. The thick, heavy, sculptural brushstrokes against a background of Ben-Day dots poked fun at the critic’s acceptance of Pollock but rejection of Pop, at the critic’s reverence of the brushstroke as the umbilical cord to the hand of the artist, when an equally talented artist’s idea might leave no actual trace on the canvas. Furthermore, painting a brushstroke was, in his words, “a way to take something ephemeral and make it concrete.” He seems to have a knack for that.
It's interesting to think about where Lichtenstein sits now in art history, now that we’re so used to the idea that low art and high art are interwoven.We see him as holding his rightful place in the canon, but it’s hard-won: in 1964, Life Magazine went so far as to ask if he was the “Worst Artist in the United States.”His painting, “Masterpiece” from 1962, which sold in 2017 for $165M at Christie’s, poked fun at his own reputation and his own anxieties, both in his depiction of a confident blonde attempting to buck up her sullen hunk, of course also named Brad, with promises that “all of New York will be clamoring for your work!” and the fact that the source material for this painting originally depicted a silent blonde turning nervously to her boyfriend, with the thought bubble caption, “someday, this bitterness will pass.” And while he eventually won over the high end of the art world, the world of cartoonists still tends to hold him somewhat at arm’s length. After all, elevating a subject doesn’t necessarily mean you’re moving it forward, and as the trailblazing cartoonist Art Spiegelman said, “Lichtenstein did no more or less for comics than Andy Warhol did for soup.” But his work did ultimately paved the way for a conversation where both sides are given equal weight. It’s a post-Lichtenstein world that allows artists and cartoonists to think about what each has to offer one another; for a Calvin and Hobbes strip to question its own artistic legitimacy; for writers like Frank Miller and Allen Moore to revolutionize the graphic novel; for a comic to be both read and contemplated, and to exist at the intersection boom boom boom funny, and wham bam pow art.
Special thanks to Dana Gerber-Margie of The Bello Collective, which you should absolutely check out at www.bellocollective.com, and to the intrepid museum goers at the Art Institute of Chicago. For more information, go to the Lonely Palette dot com, or follow us on Twitter, @lonelypalette, or on Instagram at the lonely palette, or like us on facebook, and please, if you’re a fan of the show, leave us a rating and a review on apple podcasts, and support us on Patreon in exchange for some sweet swag: www.patreon.com/lonelypalette.
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