The famous—and deceased—pop artist Roy Lichtenstein doesn’t get a lot of love from a certain contingent in the comics world. In fact, a lot of people flat-out hate Roy Lichtenstein.
Roy Lichtenstein and Comics
It gets down to creativity, and money. Lichtenstein, as dictated by his pop art aesthetic, took everyday images and inserted them into the highbrow art world, and was celebrated for it. Yet he wasn’t taking, as Warhol did, corporate imagery like a Brillo Pads box or a Campbell’s soup can. Lichtenstein was taking—copying, often exactly—images created by contemporary working artists. John Romita draws a panel in the ’60s—one frame out of a comic book that runs for dozens of pages—and is compensated modestly for it. Lichtenstein copies Romita’s frame and it commands thousands, later millions of dollars. It’s hung in fancy galleries and museums. Is John Romita cited for his original work? No.
If you took art history in college, or you go to art museums, you might be under the impression that Lichtenstein painted in a comic-book “style.” The paintings are presented as Lichtenstein’s original works, not the simple copies they are.
Who’s Ted Galindo?
Here’s a recent example: in 2015, Sotheby’s put Lichtenstein’s “The Ring (Engagement)” up for auction. The painting is clearly based on a panel drawn by Ted Galindo, an artist who drew crime, war and romance comics for Atlas. Speculation before the auction held that Lichtenstein’s painting might go for “in the region of $50 million.” Author and comics editor Scott Edelman, not a Lichtenstein fan, lays it down at his blog:
It would have been nice to see a mention of Galindo in the ArtNet story about that coming sale. … I believe every article about one of these Lichtensteins should include a reference to the source material, the same way I feel gallery operators and museum curators owe it to history to include those references in their literature and wall placards. They fail in their duties whenever they don’t. All artists deserve respect. And not just the ones whose works sell for $50,000,000.
It’s interesting that Edelman speaks in terms of respect. The art world and the comics-art world are vastly different. It’s a fact that a Lichtenstein painting will command a whole lot more than a Galindo panel, and one would be naive to expect that to change.
Art World Word Salad
But there’s something lazy, verging on dishonest, about Sotheby’s description of Lichtenstein’s painting:
In 1962, Roy Lichtenstein transformed the intimate moment of engagement into a thundering blast. With his audacious early masterpiece “The Ring (Engagement),” Lichtenstein delivered a critical crescendo at the height of the Pop Art era, cogently revealing the vicissitudes of American civilization by means of vernacular imagery appropriated directly from the heart of a universal cultural iconography. Mining public idealism toward the cultural constructions of love and its structural manifestations, “The Ring (Engagement)” is at once an immediately arresting and exhilaratingly complex crystallization of the style and themes that enveloped Lichtenstein’s oeuvre for the rest of his life.
This is all a description of a painting that Lichtenstein copied from a comic book. Later in the Sotheby’s text, Lichtenstein is quoted as having said the source for the image “was actually a box in a comic book. It looked like an explosion.” Why does Sotheby’s even bother to include this revealing quote, only to turn around and ignore it? The praise for Lichtenstein’s creative genius resumes:
As is archetypal of the artist’s most resonant paintings, Lichtenstein’s “The Ring (Engagement)” oscillates between the high emotive content of the rhapsodic imagery and the detached, readymade nature of his borrowed mass-reproduced comic-book imagery. … With sharp focus and a clear acuity for such simplified modernist precepts as line, color, and shape, Lichtenstein’s The Ring (Engagement) harnesses the affective power of culturally pervasive signs and symbols by means of the highly generalized imagery that acts as its communicative agent. Though intentionally universal in their imagery, content, and legibility, Lichtenstein’s comic paintings of the early 1960s retain a sly autobiographical undercurrent…
If not for Lichtenstein’s own admission, you might think that he conceived and composed this image completely on his own, in a bolt of inspiration. But come on — it’s a stolen image. Lichtenstein chose which panel to copy, but the artistic choices in the panel are Galindo’s, not Lichtenstein’s. If Sotheby’s had run a simple Google search they’d have figured this out. Or maybe they did, but preferred to hail Lichtenstein as a genius rather than tell the real story behind the work.
Dollars on the Penny
Ultimately, Lichtenstein’s The Ring (Engagement) underperformed, selling for just $41 million. How much might one pay for Galindo’s original, which did everything Lichtenstein’s copy does? We can’t say for sure, as the original may be lost. While there’s not a lot of Ted Galindo art for sale online, we did find the original Galindo art for a full five-page war story, which sold for $504.00 at Heritage Auctions.
As we said above, a Google search would have done wonders for accuracy and respect. David Barsalou’s Flickr gallery Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein has been online for over a decade. If you’re a Lichtenstein hater—or interested in becoming one—you should visit.
The composite images in this post by Barsalou are probably Lichtenstein’s most famous paintings, praised on an intellectual level for elevating a mass medium to fine art. Ok, but they’re copies. And not necessarily great copies — Lichtenstein may have been a giant of Pop Art, but he would have had a hard time getting steady work in comics.