We Rose Up Slowly: Roy Lichtenstein's Not-So-Slow European Rise
- Catherine Dossin
At the 1966 Venice Biennale, many thought the Grand Prize of Painting should be awarded to Roy Lichtenstein, to the great dismay of those who felt that this prestigious award should not be given to a newcomer. Lichtenstein's first European show, a Pop exhibition at Sonnabend's Paris, had just taken place in May 1963. Although the Prize was eventually awarded to Julio Le Parc, the simple fact that the American had been a serious contender is an indication of his swift, thrusting success. In three years, Lichtenstein had taken Western Europe by storm: his work had been featured in more than thirty-five shows, and was hanging preeminently in many private and public collections.
Taking on Lichtenstein's meteoric European rise, my paper examines why the artist was so successful, so quickly. It first describes how American Pop art arrived in Europe during the 1963 Crisis of Abstraction, when collectors and curators were deserting Parisian abstract art. Europeans were turning their attention to Realism anew, hence shows such as Nieuwe Realisten (Den Hague), Pop, etc. (Vienna), Neue Realisten & Pop Art (Berlin), Figuratie Defiguratie (Ghent), Figuration Narrative dans l'art contemporain (Paris), and Pop Art, Nouveau Realisme, Etc. (Brussels), from which Lichtenstein and other American Pop artists emerged as the newest, most coherent, and most exciting group. Lichtenstein's paintings, pleasantly irreverent and highly photographable, were often the ones selected to illustrate press reviews, which only increased their visibility. Lichtenstein and his colleagues also benefited from the savvy support of Leo Castelli and the Sonnabends, who orchestrated exhibitions of the group in European galleries and collaborated with museums to organize shows such as The Popular Image (London), Pop-konst (Stockholm, Humleboek, Amsterdam), or Pop Art from USA. (Hamburg). They also commissioned local art critics to write essays tailored to the European public. All this gave the new American trend -- Lichtenstein at its head -- extraordinary exposure and contributed to its wide popular success and swift official consecration.
My paper then considers the enthusiasm of European curators, like Pontus Hulten, Wim Beren, Jean Dypréau or Alain Jouffroy, and collectors, like Peter Ludwig, Count Panza, Ted Power, or Hubert Peeters, for Lichtenstein (and Pop art). It shows that they admired his work for not withdrawing from contemporary reality as Abstract art did, but instead confronting it stylistically and thematically. Even those who, like Werner Hofmann, Willem Sandberg, or Karel Geirlandt, did not personally liked it, still regarded it as historically and conceptually important. Moreover, Lichtenstein's casual imagery, colorful palette, and mechanized style appealed to them as a reflection of American civilization, whose influence was at its pinnacle. Europeans enjoyed his work because it was exactly what they expected of American art and had not found in Abstract Expressionism.
Ultimately, I argue that the triumph of American art in Europe was the triumph of Lichtenstein and Pop art, not Pollock and Abstract Expressionism, while contending that Lichtenstein's success was less the triumph of American art than the triumph of a European idea of American art and America.
Catherine Dossin is an Assistant Professor of Art History at Purdue University (USA). She holds a Master Degree from the Sorbonne in Paris and received her PhD from the University of Texas at Austin. She has published articles on the transatlantic reception of Niki de Saint-Phalle (Woman Art Journal, Fall 2010), the success of American Art in West Germany (American Art, Fall 2011), and wrote an essay on the Nieuwe Realisten and Pop Art, Nouveau Realisme, Etc. exhibitions (Presses Universitaires de la Sorbonne, 2012).