Sunday Object Talk: Lichtenstein’s Craig

Stephanie Tallering, Staff Writer

This past Sunday, College sophomore Miranda Cohen delivered a talk on Roy Lichtenstein’s 1964 painting Craig, currently on view in the Ellen Johnson Gallery. Lichtenstein’s painting sits adjacent to influential works by Pop art icons Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol. Along with the nearby Sol LeWitt works in the gallery, help to create a dynamic representation of art in the 1960s. In this setting, Cohen explained aspects of Lichtenstein’s complex process and skillfully positioned the work in its historical context.

The image Lichtenstein depicts is drawn from a panel of a popular 1960s comic strip called Young Romance. Craig shows a close-cropped image of a young woman in profile with her yellow hair juxtaposed against a solid red background. A bubble of either thought or speech rises above her head containing the word “Craig…,” reproducing a visual trope commonly used in comics.

Thick black outlines and a lack of shading produce a pronounced two-dimensional effect. This flatness is further accentuated by the series of small dots that fill in the woman’s skin, lips and irises. These dots are intended to replicate the effect of Benday dots, the dots of color used to pigment images in print media such as newspapers and magazines.

The visual and thematic elements depicted in Craig are typical of Lichtenstein’s work of the 1960s and ’70s, in which he appropriated images from popular culture into his paintings. Lichtenstein’s paintings often show stylized young women in a state of distress caused by a man. In Craig, the woman’s down-turned mouth and distant gaze reflect her despondency or desperation ostensibly caused by a man named Craig.

Throughout her talk Cohen related Craig to broader questions of the status of painting and art as social commentary in the 1960s. She posited that the impersonal, mechanical nature of Lichtenstein’s work as well as its appropriation of images from popular culture can be viewed as a reaction to the elitism and autobiographical tendencies of Abstract Expressionism.

Abstract Expressionist painting was often a highly personal endeavor through which artists explored the recesses of their psyches using gesture and color to express emotion. Lichtenstein took a completely different approach by using preexisting images found in mass culture and portraying mechanized, marketable emotion in lieu of incising psychological authenticity. Lichtenstein’s use of the aesthetics of industrial printing furthers the emotionally removed, impersonal nature of the work. Lichtenstein wanted his canvases to appear machine-made, using primary colors, enlarged Benday dots and a lack of visible brushstrokes. While Craig appears mechanically produced, in reality creating Lichtenstein’s works required a painstaking attention to detail.

This contrast between a polished, mechanized look and a highly physical process positions Lichtenstein’s work as a critique of the hyper-industrialization of post-war America and 1960s consumerism. Craig exemplifies the ways in which American cultural mythologies relating to industry and gender converge with the ultimate goal of selling products. Lichtenstein’s work examines the representation of women as objects to be acted upon and the ways that images in mass culture distill and commodify women’s emotions for profit.

However, Letty Lou Eisenhauer, a former girlfriend of Lichtenstein’s once claimed in an interview, “The women in these paintings are crying for him, expressing indirectly what he could not express directly. But they are also crying over him. Roy wanted some beautiful Breck girl to love him the way these women loved their men.”

With this quote, Cohen raised a question that so often haunts art of the 1960s: Was Lichtenstein intending to critique the ways in which women are portrayed in mass culture, or was he tacitly reproducing these norms through his work? While we may never know the answer, this quote provides an alternate lens through which to examine Craig, and suggests that perhaps Lichtenstein was bringing in elements of autobiography and psychology into his art, despite his stated intentions.

At the end of the talk a woman exclaimed, “I will never look at this piece the same way again!” Cohen had clearly accomplished her goal.