Roy Lichtenstein: When Mickey Went Pop
On the 10th of February 1962, American Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein showed his first solo exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, selling out before the opening. From an artist struggling with aesthetic and financial difficulties Lichtenstein was turned into an instant success, hunted by collectors and featured in the major media. Some of the now iconic works featured in the show included Blam, Engagement Ring, The Refrigerator andLook Mickey. With them, Lichtenstein notably made the transition from the established abstract expressionist trend to pop imagery charged with aesthetic attributes, characterised by ironic humour. These works constituted the first example of the artist’s employment of Ben-Day dots, speech balloons and comic visuals.
Look Mickey (1961) was especially popular for its unprecedented quality in the art world. There are many confusing stories about the inspiration behind this picture and the artist contradicted himself a couple of times as to where he first saw it and in what context, or what he took from it. Yet more inaccurate claims attribute Look Micky’s source to a bubble-gum wrapper. The established version about the work’s provenance is Lichtenstein’s own modest account in which he seems to remember having painted his duck-and-mouse scene as a favour to his youngest son Mitchell, who had been embarrassed at school by the incomprehensibility of his father’s occupation as the (then) abstract artist. Such a comic book image, so the tale goes, would prove to both Mitchell and his elementary school classmates that the elder Lichtenstein was a skilled craftsman, not, as his son’s friends had claimed, “somebody who paints abstracts because he’s no good at drawing”. (Hans Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art)
The artist Allan Kaprow throws an interesting light on a possible interpretation of Look Mickey by recalling a legendary conversation he claims to have had with Lichtenstein about the meaning of art: “Roy and I were sitting in his converted bedroom, which was a studio, talking about pedagogy. For example, how do you teach art from Cezanne? I said you don’t. That was my opinion. I said, ‘What you do-‘and the kids had just come back with a bag full of Double Bubble chewing gum. They always had little cartoons inside, wrapped around the bubble gum. I said, ‘This is the way you teach colour, and volume, and composition.’ . . . Roy sort of looked at me with a slight grin. […] I said, ‘Cezanne’s much too complicated. You’ll never really teach Cezanne. It’s just ninety-nine percent intuitive. This collapsing of space, and several viewpoints at the same time, will go right over the heads of the students. This is the way to do it. Teach them how to make cartoons,’ and he smiled at me. A half smile. […] So he flipped through a couple of [canvases tacked to the wall] and up came Donald Duck.” (Allan Kaprow quoted in Roy Lichtenstein: All About Art, reproduced in Graham Bader’s article ‘Donald’s Numbness’). Kaprow’s throwback to Cezanne possibly summarises the quintessential idea behind the emergence of Pop Art. Graham Bader noted that most importantly, Look Mickey represented “a recognition not so much of failure as of loss, of a kind of impotence in the face of both Cezanne and art history itself. It was in Look Micky, finally, that Lichtenstein realised (as he recounted in 1996) that he could only create an original work of art ‘by doing something completely unoriginal.” (Lichtenstein quoted in Joan Marter (ed.), Off Limits: Rutgers University and the Avant-Garde, 1957-1963, featured in Graham Bader, ‘Donald’s Numbness’, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 29, No. 1, 2006).
So when we think of Pop Art, it may be worth considering the importance of this seminal work, which in great lines, ‘pops’ or bursts the bubble of the myth of originality in art. It ultimately makes the break between modern and postmodern ways of thinking and looking, by employing simple low art and popular imagery. Quintessentially, this marks the move from expressive abstraction to an art of ideas, of concept. It is not about what we see anymore, the image as an expression of the artist’s unique talent, it is about what the image implies conceptually.