Deconstructing Deconstructing Lichtenstein

Posted by Dan Wednesday, October 18, 2006

I'll admit this right up front. Roy Lichtenstein was not my favorite artist. It never set right with me that he didn't credit the original artists whose work he was using, and I always found his line work far inferior to the original comics panels he was using. Still and all, his artwork was unique and over the years, I have found several of his pieces that I quite like. I do know that I appreciate the statement he was making with his reproductions, and I really enjoy the controversy over his work that goes on even today, seven years after his death.

So, it strikes me as kind of funny that David Barsalou should obsess about Lichtenstein's paintings to the point that he would put up a web site devoted to pairing blow ups of the original comics panels with poorly reproduced, micronized pictures of the original Lichtenstein paintings. The site is badly put together, but as the main point of this article, you can take a look at it at Deconstructing Lichtenstein.

See, here's the thing... if you're going to deconstruct the work of an artist, any artist, you make a much better argument if you're fair about your criticism. The very act of blowing up these comics panels, and drastically reducing the size of the Lichtenstein paintings has the effect of completely screwing up the artwork for comparison contrast.

In the case of the comics panels, the size change muddies the line work by taking it from its original published size to something approximating the size at which it was originally drawn. Normally this wouldn't be a problem, but here's the thing. Comic Books are a completely collaborative medium. When you show a comics panel, you are showing work by not only the artist that pencilled the panel, but also from the artist that inked it, the colorist, the letterer, and dare I say it, the writer who came up with the scene in the first place. If you're going to do a true comparison, perhaps a reproduction of the original art would be a bit closer to fair.

In the case of the Lichtenstein paintings, you run into some different problems. I've seen Roy Lichtenstein's comics reproduction work in person, and the first thing that hits you about them is their sheer size. By altering that size, you completely change the meaning of the work. What was once a celebration of the comics medium, and a scathing social commentary, is reduced to nothing more than a swipe. I submit that it's completely disingenuous to compare and contrast altered artwork. A person coming to Roy Lichtenstein's art for the first time via Barsalou's website could easily mistake Lichtenstein for a comics artist. He isn't, and never in his life did he claim to be.

Another thing that's really annoying about the Deconstructing Lichtenstein site is the watermarks that Barsalou plasters all over his scans of the comics panels. It's distracting, it's annoying, and it makes you wonder why he was so quick to deface those comics panels, but not the Lichtenstein scans. This shouldn't surprise me really, but it does. Does Barsalou have so little respect for the comics artwork he's showing? If that's the case, then the logical conclusion would be that this is merely an attack on Roy Lichtenstein's legacy, and not in fact a deconstruction. Of course since Barsalou credits none of the original artists on his site, I'm thinking either this is an attack, or he's just not finished building the site.

When John Byrne draws his twentieth (or whatever) re-interpretation of the cover to Fantastic Four #1, we call it homage. When Lichtenstein re-interpreted the comics panels for his series of paintings, he called it homage too. It's one thing to call out a comic book artist for swiping other artist's works. Peter David has been doing this to Rob Liefeld for years. It's quite another matter, however, to exhibit drastically altered scans of painted, stylized reproduction art next to comic book art, and call it a critical deconstruction. You might as well vilify a movie for copying the book it was based on.

During his lifetime, Roy Lichtenstein made it very clear that this series of paintings were reproduced from the comics that he loved. If he made one mistake, it was that he never really went out of his way to credit his source material. So, If you're Russ Heath, Curt Swan, or any of the other artists whose work Lichtenstein used, but almost never credited, you definitely have a legitimate complaint. If you're going to go to bat for credit where credit is due, I'll be first on the bandwagon. Just don't compare apples to Lasagna and call it a critical deconstruction.

The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation has an excellent website, dedicated to the man's life and works. In the cases where the Lichtenstein painting is a reproduced project, they have gone so far as to credit the source material. If you want to see what Roy Lichtenstein was all about, this is an excellent place to start.


  1. Laura Says:
  2. We have three Lichtenstien works in our house. John loves his style - and I have to admit it's grown on me over the years. I much prefer his abstract stuff like Yellow and Green Brushstrokes over his comic-style patterns. I didn't even know his work was based of actual comics - he should have given credit to the original artists then. Still, his work looks like nothing else.

  3. Marionette Says:
  4. You might as well vilify a movie for copying the book it was based on.

    No, but I’ve seen plenty of reviews that villified movies for being bad copies of the book they were based on. Not forgetting that people who make movie adaptations usually credit the books and pay large sums of money for the rights to copy them.

  5. Dan Says:
  6. Laura, I am much more a fan of Lichtenstein's original works too.

    Marionette, yeah but.... well I .... but... I , damn when you're right you're right. :)

  7. Anonymous Says:

  9. Anonymous Says:
  10. Subject: Look Mickey
    Date: Tue, 15 Jan 2002 14:31:26 -0500
    From: "Jack Cowart"

    Dear Mr. Barsalou,
    We are delighted with your Look Mickey source find. I have fowarded your information to the National Gallery of Art, department of modern and contemporary art, since they own that painting and we have all anguished over its source for years. This is a wonderful addition to scholarship and I am sure they will delight in getting the exact citation. Throughout our catalogue raisonne process "sources" are a central item of Lichtenstein and we are pleased to find you so engaged in it,also.
    More later.
    Jack Cowart
    Executive Director
    The Roy Lichtenstein

  11. Courtney Says:
  12. Dan, aren't those the same links Barsalou sent you showing that he knows how to blow his own horn but otherwise provide nothing of value?

    If Barsalou were a reputable resource in the comparison-contrast of Lichtenstein vs. Original Creators, then he should be sharing the info in this 'email' in THE comparison. Not by using it to refute a criticism that his argument against Lichtenstein is fallacious. What good is saying, "No, but wait, I DO know the original sources, see look here at this nearly five year old email, AND it's from the Executive Director of the R.L. Foundation -- that proves my point!"

    Wait, I thought he had all those fancy degrees??? He must have skipped English 101.


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