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Pop art or copycat? The Roy Lichtenstein controversy

Roy Lichtenstein is recognized by many as one of the twentieth century’s most important artists.  Alongside Andy Warhol, he founded the pop art movement, which adopted imagery from contemporary American culture and reformed it into new work – today, a Lichtenstein work can fetch millions of dollars. Lichtenstein openly admitted to using comic strips in his paintings as an ironic appropriation gesture, but it took him a long time to do so, so discussion emerged about whether he reimagined this work or simply plagiarised it.

Lichtenstein adopted and cheated more than 30 artists

The recently released documentary asserts that dozens of Lichtenstein’s artworks can be identified back to other artists, casting a shadow over the pop art legend’s legacy and exposing what happened to the comic book artists whose work was transformed by the pop art colossus. The documentary, WHAAM! BLAM! Roy Lichtenstein and the Art of Appropriation, directed by James Hussey, investigates Lichtenstein and the comic artists and reveals a significant difference between the two. Many of the comic artists were poor and only made a few dollars for the art Lichtenstein would modify and sell for millions of dollars.

The film suggests that Lichtenstein adopted and cheated more than 30 comic artists, including Hy Eisman. Eisman worked on a wide range of publications for nearly 75 years and only recently discovered that Lichtenstein used one of his images. He said “It’s called stealing. I worked like a dog on this stupid page and this guy has $20m to show for it. If it weren’t so tragic, it would be [funny]. I got paid very little for the page, something like $4. He was able to turn it into a painting and make millions. When I saw that he did that to other people, I thought it was a lousy thing to do.  But until now I never thought I was involved.”

He cites the example of Lichteinstein’s Blam of 1962, which depicts a pilot ejecting from an exploding plane and is almost directly lifted from a panel in Russ Heath’s All American Men of War #89

The film features comic book expert David Barsalou, who has traced over 300 Lichtenstein works inspired by artists across the course of a year-long research project, deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein. “I thought perhaps there are only four, five, or six paintings which he did that are close to the originals,” he said. But it was hard to describe my feelings as I started discovering more and more over the years that his images were like just direct copies.” He cites the example of Lichtenstein’s Blam of 1962, which depicts a pilot ejecting from an exploding plane and is almost directly lifted from a  panel in Russ Heath’s All American Men of War #89.

Michael Daley, a cartoonist, said: “Comic book artists are rightly aggrieved. Aside from outright plagiarism, technically they are generally far better draughtsmen than Lichtenstein, who couldn’t even correctly copy the properly drawn ellipse of a jet engine’s air intake. They were also superior in their artfully dynamic and expressive  compositions, everyone being a master of the graphic potency of a cropped image.” Bradford R Collins, the author of the book Pop Art and professor of art history at the University of South Carolina, defended Lichtenstein: “It’s not plagiarism. It’s appropriation. With plagiarism, you’re stealing somebody’s work and using it for the same purpose they did. If Lichtenstein made comic books out of it, that would be stealing”.

However, appropriation implies taking something and repurposing it, such as taking something from a comic book and turning it into a painting. “I can see why Eisman is upset. I would have the same reaction. It is, however, not plagiarism in the artistic sense.” In the documentary, a lawyer argues that Lichtenstein’s work would be considered transformative because he frequently incorporated new elements rather than making an exact copy.

Why is there still such a disparity between the ‘high art’ he created and the comic’s ostensibly ‘low art’?

The artist himself seemed to share this opinion, stating: “My work has been accused of looking like the things that I copy, and it certainly does look like the things I copy… But it is that quality, whatever art is, that transforms the work of art to be something different.” Hussey stated that his film is intended to “stimulate debate” about the ethical, legal, and human implications of artistic appropriation, which he sees as a necessary gesture in art. However, it raises serious questions about the obligation in appropriation processes – would the careers and earning potentials of the comic artists have benefited if Lichtenstein had acknowledged them? And, if Lichtenstein appropriated comic art in order to elevate it, why is there still such a disparity between the ‘high art’ he created and the comic’s ostensibly ‘low art’? These are difficult questions with no simple answers, but given the importance of appropriation and reimagining work in the art world (as well as the countless plagiarism allegations and lawsuits that follow), they are critical to ask.


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