Roy Lichtenstein’s critics said he was a plagiarist, not an artist. But Alastair Sooke argues that he should be reassessed as a modern master.

When pop art blazed onto the scene in the early ’60s, many people dismissed the work of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and their contemporaries as worthless rubbish. “Art galleries are being invaded by the pin-headed and contemptible style of gum-chewers, bobby-soxers, and worse, delinquents,” art critic Max Kozloff wrote after visiting Lichtenstein’s debut solo show of pop paintings at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York in 1962. Seven years later, the same critic still recalled the “acid shock” of seeing Lichtenstein’s work for the first time.

Lichtenstein was phlegmatic. “New things always seem much more startling than they seem 20 years later or when they have sunk into the history of art,” he said. But more than half a century after his breakthrough, his capacity to generate controversy has not disappeared altogether. Earlier this month, the most extensive Lichtenstein retrospective in two decades opened at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, on the final leg of a global tour that has already visited Chicago, Washington and London. And there are still people who believe that Lichtenstein – the so-called architect of pop art celebrated for his distinctive cartoon style – was a copycat, not an artist.

One of them is the outspoken British comic-book artist Dave Gibbons, best known for the graphic novel Watchmen. “I’m not convinced that it is art,” he told me earlier this year, standing in front of Whaam!, a well-known diptych from 1963 that Lichtenstein adapted from an All American Men of War comic strip published the previous year. In Lichtenstein’s enormous painting, which imitates the reproductive techniques of cheap commercial printing (a palette of primary colours, a flat background, heavy black outlines, fields of tiny dots to simulate tone and shadow), a faceless fighter pilot unleashes a rocket that screams through the sky from left to right before detonating an enemy jet in a spectacular fireball of red and yellow. Now in the collection of the Tate, Whaam! is one of the star exhibits of the touring retrospective.

“We have a term in the business called swiping,” Gibbons continues. “When you are stuck for an idea, you riffle through your comics, and you trace what somebody else has done. A lot of Lichtenstein’s stuff is so close to the original that it actually owes a huge debt to the work of the original artist. But in music, for instance, you can’t just whistle somebody else’s tune no matter how badly without crediting or getting payment to the original artist.”

In the case of Whaam!, that original artist was the American comic-book illustrator Irv Novick. Ironically enough, Novick was an officer at the army boot camp where Lichtenstein trained during the Second World War. After spotting Lichtenstein’s talent as a draughtsman, Novick took him off latrine-mopping duty and got him designing signs and posters instead. Gibbons would disagree with me, but two decades later Lichtenstein returned the favour by immortalising one of Novick’s panels as a masterpiece of modern art.

Comparing the source for Whaam! with the finished painting banishes the hoary idea that Lichtenstein profited on the back of the creativity of others. Lichtenstein transformed Novick’s artwork in a number of subtle but crucial ways. In general, he wanted to simplify and unify the image, to give it more clarity as a coherent work of art. For this reason, he removed two extra fighter jets to the right of the original panel. He also got rid of the lump of dark shadow representing a mountainside that was an ugly compositional mistake to the left of Novick’s picture. The result is that the two panels of Whaam! feel much more evenly balanced, producing a satisfying and well-structured visual effect.

While Novick’s explosion is a measly, scratchy little thing slipping out of frame, Lichtenstein’s self-possessed fireball unfurls like a blooming flower. Lichtenstein changed the colour of the letters spelling out “WHAAM!” from red to yellow, so that yellow would become another means of yoking everything together. As a result, the eye is cleverly led from the yellow of the speech bubble above the jet through the onomatopoeic sound effect to the explosion itself and back round to the horizontal vapour trail left behind by the missile.

Then, of course, there is the question of scale. Lichtenstein took something tiny and ephemeral – a throwaway comic-strip panel that most people would overlook – and blew it up so that it was a substantial oil (and acrylic) painting more than 2m (6.5 ft) wide and 1.7m (5.5 ft) high. Here, he was saying, was a contemporary equivalent of a grand ‘history painting’, once considered the highest and most challenging branch of art. In the years after it was executed, people began to understand Whaam! as a prophetic critique of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

Modern manifesto

Lichtenstein even managed to coax further resonance out of his unpromising source material, because Whaam! is in part a manifesto for the new mode of pop art. The cool, detached manner in which it is painted repudiates the overheated gestural spontaneity of the brushwork of Lichtenstein’s immediate predecessors in American art, the Abstract-Expressionists. “Whatever quality one generation has is boring to the next generation,” he said in 1965. “And so you look for something else.”

The red and yellow fireball to the right of Whaam! is also a parody of abstract painting by some of Lichtenstein’s contemporaries such as Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis. According to this reading, the hotshot in the fighter jet streaking in from the left of the painting is a tongue-in-cheek surrogate for Lichtenstein himself – the heroic ‘ace’ of the new pop movement – vanquishing his competitors in a dramatic art-world dogfight.

Back in the ’60s, not everybody viewed the painting in this way. “This sort of thing is just nonsense,” said the British art critic Herbert Read at a meeting of the Tate’s trustees in 1966. Furious that the Tate was considering buying Whaam!, Read and another trustee, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth – both of whom had once been in the vanguard of modern art – tried to block its acquisition. In the event, they were unsuccessful: according to a recent article published in The Art Newspaper, the Tate bought Whaam! for the cut-down price of £3,940 ($10,000) in December 1966. Today it would be worth many tens of millions of pounds.

Instant gratification

“I continue to be astonished that people in the ‘60s thought – as some still do – that there is no difference between Lichtenstein’s source image and the finished painting,” art historian Richard Morphet tells me. As an assistant keeper at the Tate, he was invited to write a justification of the painting to persuade the board of trustees to buy it. “Perhaps the immediate impact of Whaam! makes some viewers equate instantaneity with superficiality, as if there is nothing more to the work than what can be taken in at a glance. In fact, though, its very boldness is an ingredient of its complexity.”

Does Morphet recall why he felt so passionately about Whaam! in the ’60s? “Lichtenstein’s image was striking in terms of its grandeur, its composition, and its colour,” he replies. “It seemed to address at the same time history painting, Baroque extravagance, and the quotidian phenomenon of mass-circulation comic strips.”

Whaam! is a subtle and sophisticated painting. Like the best works of art, it contains nuances that cannot be apprehended all at once. Fifty years ago, in the same year that Lichtenstein painted Whaam!, an art historian called Erle Loran attacked him in an article headlined “Pop Artists or Copy Cats?” Surely, in 2013, it is time we stopped accusing Lichtenstein of plagiarism once and for all.

Alastair Sooke is an art critic for The Daily Telegraph and author of Roy Lichtenstein: How Modern Art was Saved by Donald Duck.

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