The first solo show.
It’s what most artists look forward to as their chance to break into the art world and gain notoriety.
Yet for pop painter Roy Lichtenstein, the first solo show in Los Angeles would go down in art history not as a simple display of talent but a showcase of humor. The painter’s “Portrait of Madame Cézanne” was recorded as one of the most controversial works of the show. The simple outline with lines, arrows and letters looks innocent on first glance, but the painting’s background drove art critics up the wall.
The original “Portrait of Madame Cézanne” was painted in the 19th century by the legendary Paul Cézanne. Then, in 1942, artist and author Erle Loran created a diagram of the outline of the woman’s body in Cézanne’s piece to analyze in a formal manner.
Lichtenstein decided to have a little fun with Loran’s diagram. He took the outline and gave it the title of Cézanne’s original painting. Cézanne’s masterpiece, stripped of its splendor, became a painter outline by a pop artist just forming his identity as an L.A. trickster.
Today, the work doesn’t startle the art history world as much as it did during its first unveiling. In fact, Lichtenstein’s work resides in many established art museums. At the Museum of Contemporary Art in Downtown Los Angeles, a similar work hangs for new and old art lovers to admire. Lichtenstein’s 1962 piece, “Man with Folded Arms,” also takes the outline of a Cézanne painting, “Man with Crossed Arms,” although this time the outline has a face.
“Man with Folded Arms” serves as a reminder that it’s never quite certain what will be taken as art and what will be deemed not worth seeing. In each era, artists feel they need to do something new, but they can never say for certain whether their generation will appreciate that work. Though this piece showed at Lichtenstein’s first solo show, it’s unlikely anyone predicted its eventual inclusion in one of Los Angeles’ most important museum art collections.
Today, Lichtenstein’s name brings up ideas of Pop Art and an aesthetic that references comic strips and other scenes from pop culture. He reincarnated images like dramatic love scenes in a way that exposed their ridiculous nature. Using Ben-Day dots, Lichtenstein recreated the aesthetic look of the images in a style that brought him fame. One such work, “Drowning Girl,” now hangs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, also a huge signaler of the art world’s best.
Except for its lack of color and the Ben-Day dots, “Man with Folded Arms” looks exactly the same as Cézanne’s original “Man with Crossed Arms.” That brings up another nagging question in the art world and pop culture: If a work copies or resembles something else, does that make it worthy of our attention?
The lines of “Man with Folded Arms” make the piece look sparse. The piece could almost be a page in a coloring book — it’s almost as if the man is waiting for someone to give his outfit a style and his hair some color. These factors make it even more obvious that the work is a copy. It doesn’t attempt to create any unique characteristics of its own. Instead, it takes the core of Cézanne’s original piece and reveals it to the world.
If anything is original, it’s Lichtenstein’s idea of stripping away all of Cézanne’s presence from the art piece. Even if Lichtenstein saw most of his own “Man with Folded Arms” as humorous, he still gained enough courage to present this piece to the art world as something worthy of hanging in a gallery. He made the original work something worth analyzing and challenged one of art history’s masters.
Today, the question of originality and worth continues. If a song borrows a beat from one that came out decades ago, is it actually new and exciting? If a street artist uses the same stenciling style as another one from the ’80s, is he worthy of being a subculture king? Ultimately, the question won’t be answered until several generations from now. Today’s art museums decided who to show us from the art world of decades ago; the next generation will see our artists as the ones to remember.
With the advent of technology, perhaps we have more say in who is remembered and who gets forgotten. If anything, Lichtenstein’s “Man with Folded Arms” comes as proof that originality doesn’t always come first. Maybe the ultimate way of making art — and being remembered — lies in creating something that gets people talking.
Eva Recinos is a senior majoring in English. Her column “Two Cents a Piece” runs Tuesdays.