Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein: On Originality and Art

Roy Lichtenstein: Image Duplicator

Lately, I’ve been having a lot of conversations about original art vs. derivative art and if/whether these qualities are mutually exclusive. (Over the last week, we had this print and these toys, for example. And of course there was this.) Well, I’ve just returned from an epic Internet k-hole (what’s an Internet k-hole?) and true triumph of OCD art. While I didn’t emerge with the answers, I have oh-so-much new information and tons and tons of questions!

Deconstructing Lichtenstein's The Kiss

OK, so check this out. David Barsalou is a comic book copyright crusader who spent some 25+ years looking through over 30,000 comic books to identify the previously unidentified source material behind the works of Roy Lichtenstein.

Barsalou explains:

The critics are of one mind that he made major changes, but if you look at the work, he copied them almost verbatim. Only a few were original.

But what exactly is an “original” in the art world?

Deconstructing Lichtenstein

Jack Cowart is executive director of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation. He can’t tell us what an “original” is, but he does say what it isn’t:

Barsalou is boring to us. Roy’s work was a wonderment of the graphic formulae and the codification of sentiment that had been worked out by others. Barsalou’s thesis notwithstanding, the panels were changed in scale, color, treatment, and in their implications. There is no exact copy.

This is true: an “exact copy” is an oxymoron.

Roy Lichtenstein's Drowning Girl

The Pop Art movement was all about appropriating low art and elevating it to high art. In Lichtenstein’s case, one might argue that the comic artist got paid to make the comic book image and Lichtenstein got paid to turn the panel into a famous painting. I can jive with the basis of that, although it starts to erode for me at a certain point. Maybe it has to do with “value?” How do you account for the Lichtenstein painting that sells for $431 million at Christie’s and the source comic panel that sells for $431 (dollars) on eBay?

Roy Lichtenstein

Well, you can’t. Not with dollar signs anyway. But one can try to make “reparations” to the sources with credit. Here’s Mr. Cowart again:

We are all in favor of having the drawers and writers receive as much credit as humanly possible. We owe them esteem but can’t pay them back for the royalties they might have received.

I feel like Cowart is being deliberately nasty by referring to the comic book artists as “drawers,” but whatever.

Roy Lichtenstein

The Lichtenstein Foundation launched its own exhaustive online database of Roy Lichtenstein’s artwork paired with his source material. You can view their Image Duplicator website here. But first, view 200+ pages of David Barsalou’s Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein Flickr here. Barsalou continues to fight Lichtenstein, now through Facebook here. That should keep you busy until Monday. Have a great weekend!