Roy Lichtenstein’s name is synonymous with Pop art. His works stand today as icons of America during the 1960s and 1970s, with his characteristic comic-strip, benday dot imagery having entered the collective subconscious as an instantly recognisable graphic aesthetic. In stylistic contrast, this group of eight woodcuts, one lithograph and one etching produced between 1949 and 1956 represents the artist’s earliest experiments in print; they are intriguing precursors to the artist’s subsequent development.
Initially, one is surprised to find the rough and expressively carved woodcuts, finely hand-drawn lithograph and abstracted etching to be the work of the king of Pop. Perhaps the only hint of Lichtenstein’s imminent obsession with American popular culture can be detected in the lithograph Ten dollar bill 1956. In this proto-Pop print, we see Lichtenstein first taking an everyday object, symbolic of the growing American consumer culture, as his subject matter.
A master of appropriation, Lichtenstein not only borrowed images and stylistic devices from art history but also revisited and reinterpreted his own works. In the prints Indian with pony 1953, Two Indians with bird 1953 and the Picasso-inspired A Cherokee brave 1952, Lichtenstein combines his interest in American Indian subject matter with the woodcut technique. He returned to this combination of subject and medium in 1980, gleaning inspiration for the production of his next series of woodcuts, the American Indian theme series, six semi-Surrealist works also in the National Gallery’s collection.
These ten works were generously donated by Kenneth Tyler and Marabeth Cohen-Tyler and are the earliest examples of Lichtenstein’s work in the national art collection. A selection of these works will form a distinct grouping in the forthcoming Lichtenstein exhibition scheduled for 2012.
Curator, International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books
in artonview, issue 67, spring 2011
The 1956 lithograph Ten dollar bill is regarded as an important proto-Pop work. It is here, in printmaking, the medium of the multiple copy, that we see Lichtenstein first taking an everyday object, symbolic of the growing American consumer culture, as his subject matter. With more than a hint of his Pop sensibility, the artist has experimented with several fonts and font sizes in the text and numbers that carry the image’s readable ‘information’—the information necessary for the viewer to immediately recognise the composition as a ten-dollar bill depicted in a caricature style.
Despite its obvious Pop flavour, Ten dollar bill is a gestural image. The ground is a complex combination of negative space, varying degrees of shading, fine crosshatching and brushed additions in liquid tusche. Furthermore, the complex combination of printerly effects reveals Lichtenstein’s prowess with the lithographic technique.
In Ten dollar bill Lichtenstein remixes a well-worn image from American history that is distanced by multiple reproductions from the original. In this case, the 1805 portrait of US President Alexander Hamilton, as portrayed by the painter John Trumbull, serves as the source. In an ironic assertion of human individuality in the face of mechanical mass-production, one can make out what appears to be Lichtenstein’s smudgy fingerprint at the centre of the image. The artist’s sense of humour is also apparent in his comment that ‘the idea of counterfeiting money always occurs to you when you do lithography’.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014