Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In


July 26, 2008 - 3:46pm -- Carol Diehl
In a June news story that lasted about two minutes, Coldplay were accused of stealing a tune from a rock band named Creaky Boards for their new album—as if Coldplay didn’t have enough songs in their repertoire that they had to nick them. The story was nipped in the bud when Coldplay responded that lead singer Chris Martin was in London the night that he was allegedly seen in New York at a Creaky Boards gig, and that the album, Viva la Vida, on which the offending song appeared, had been demoed months before. While I know ideas do get ripped off, and I’ve actually had them ripped off (a book and an article, and blatantly), I also know that two people can come up with efforts that are spookily similar.

My direct experience with the zeitgeist was when Frank Del Deo, my dealer at Hirshl & Adler Modern (now at Knoedler), asked me—this was around 1995—if I knew the work of Italian artist Alighiero e Boetti (1940-94). I didn’t, but sought out his work and when I found it, it was like looking at myself. And, of course, now, I'm a big fan.

Which is Carol's and which is Alighiero's? Okay, mine is on the top and his is on the bottom. And while mine is painted, his is embroidered. But still....


That is pretty amazing synchronicity.

But it definitely happens!

A more famous example is Lichtenstein's first comic strip pictures and Andy Warhol's. It's hard to believe neither knew of the other at the time. But some ideas are just in the loop. In fact there may have been others who hit on comics in exactly the same way, at exactly the same time that we'll never know about.

I know a lot of artists who've just buried stuff once they've seen it covered by others. Warhol promptly exchanged Dick Tracy etc for Campbell's Soup.

To me that's an incredibly courageous step - a real vote of confidence in one's ability to come up with something just as good, and the insistence upon, if not originality, at least a certain degree of distinction for one's work.

Looking at the two examples more closely, there are some fascinating differences as well, in your broader range of motifs. But I don't want to be tedious about this.

The facts of the Warhol-Lichtenstein co-incidence are this.
1) Even if Lichtenstein happened to see Warhol’s paintings in Bonwit Teller’s window in April 1961, this would not change the date that Lichtenstein readily acknowledges he first saw them – “spring 1961’. Warhol’s comic strip imagery from 1960 – such as the Dick Tracy and Nancy examples Lichtenstein cites, are still indebted to Jasper Johns in the template-like approach to filling the outlines, the use of incomplete areas, drips, and in the drawings, the short even pencil strokes. None of this is adopted by Lichtenstein, and for good reason. Since 1957 Lichtenstein had already been using Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, in his own more freely gestural style derived from Abstract Expressionism (especially de Kooning), and with artists like Larry Rivers, is then interested in applying this to common and popular iconography – they both do versions of Washington crossing the Delaware, for example. Lichtenstein in 1956 goes on to dollar bills, before switching to cartoon characters – and especially those featuring anthropomorphization of animals.

2) He thus has a completely different trajectory and interest from Johns and Warhol, yet surprisingly Warhol and Lichtenstein’s styles converge and ‘coincide’. Warhol continues with his template/Johnsian approach INTO 1961 – see ‘Peach Halves’ 1961 for example, and does not switch to the cleaner, hard edge style until that year – see the two famous examples of Storm Windows (1960 and 1961) in Fineberg p 251). So that if the works in Bonwit Teller window were an influence they would not have given Lichtenstein the decisive move to the ‘clean copy’ – and since the examples Lichtenstein cites – of Dick Tracy and Nancy – were in the older style, these clearly were amongst the works exhibited in the Bonwit Teller window, were most likely the only examples, for how else could Lichtenstein have known about them, if they were not available through Castelli/Karp?

3) Castelli certainly did not represent Warhol at this time, but neither did he represent Lichtenstein, immediately. Karp’s account says the small Lichtenstein’s were kept in a cupboard for some time because Castelli couldn’t make up his mind. Castelli did represent Johns though. And Warhol as an ardent fan of Johns and hardly hesitant in advancing his own cause, might well have shown his clearly related work to either Karp or Castelli, either in turn may have compared them to Lichtenstein, with Lichtenstein.

4) Carey’s account, by his own admission is unreliable. But more importantly, careful scrutiny of THE WORKS THEMSELVES reveal the crucial changes. The use of cartoon characters (with or without voice balloons) does not make the decisive breakthrough – in my view is not strictly Pop Art. Precedents in the use of such material stretch back through the fifties, as noted to Pearlstein, Ramos, to various collagists including Schwitters, Hamilton, Paolozzi and Jess. But to base the style on mere iconography attenuates the movement to the point of triviality. For the social historian these are fascinating, for the art historian less so. The crucial move comes strictly in painting, strictly from the exemplification of certain print characteristics BY painting. Lichtenstein did not copy Warhol. Warhol had the courage and resourcefulness to press the print paradigm more radically, had no taste or need for the melodrama and humor that appealed to Lichtenstein.

thanks, i am fascinated by all of this stuff and enjoy visiting your CAP blog. are you an anonymous person? is it an open secret kind of thing? do you write elsewhere?

i'm a little confused at your point number 4... are you addressing what you think that i think? i was thinking specifically of the use of appropriated single-panel comics... not the general use of cartoon characters in art, etc... and i'm not claiming (here) that one of those guys is somehow lamer, only that they are not a good example of two artists arriving at the same thing independently, without any knowledge of the other's work.

Martin – I’m a semi-anonymous web author. My real identity can quickly be found by googling Currentartpics. But I use CAP to underline my disinterest in making any claim on the contents of my blog – there are no © reminders there, and I’m happy for anyone to take or leave whatever they find there, with one exception.

I mainly want to discourage anyone from a certain university claiming any of it as original in more respectable academic publications. Hopefully the more readers there are, the more easily this will be detected, should it be tried. The material is largely the result on many years of doctoral research in art history that was cruelly betrayed by a certain university. I want nothing from it now (was never going to get much from it anyway) other than to make sure they get nothing from it either.

So CAP is a tactic, with a very pointed target.

My point 4 is not clear. What I should have said is that the two artist’s styles do not rest solely on the single comic strip frame – that this is where their styles start to coincide, but nor is an adequate definition of Pop Art. Where their work is almost identical is in the simple line illustrations from advertising like Lichtenstein’s two-panel Step-on Can with Leg (1961) and Warhol’s Before & After (nose jobs) (1962). These come once both artists discard the obviously painterly in their work – seemingly make ‘clean copies’ of the source material. The comic strips lead to this. They both also do some how-to diagrams like Warhol’s Dance Diagram – Tango 1962 or Do it yourself 1962 (coloring-in by numbers, a yachting scene) and Lichtenstein’s Portrait of Madam Cezanne (1962) – a compositional diagram.

I think this is an excellent example of two artists arriving at the same style, quite coincidentally - for quite different purposes. Of course both are quickly aware of the other, and abruptly drop the shared material – Lichtenstein then specializes in comic strips, Warhol moves on to silkscreens, then photo-silkscreens, but for a moment it is easy to confuse the two artists’ work.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

What is this "certain university"? If cap is a project with a "very pointed target" why don't you tell us what the target is? If you're anonymous, does the target even know it's being hit? Does the target know you exist?


Anono - I’m advised to be anymore specific could be litigious. But yes – by other means, intermediaries - both parties are aware of the steps taken.

But I should add this is just a precaution. It is in no way certain that my material will be stolen. In fact the reason I fell foul of certain figures seems to have been that they privately resented my line of research. I assume they felt a tacit rivalry or something. Nothing was ever said to my face, quite the contrary.

However, since my work was also praised in other, very prestigious quarters, and since a large part of the university funding is dependent upon quality of postgraduate research (measured by just such reception, internationally) and since they refused even to return all copies of my thesis, when it was clear there would be no satisfactory outcome, my suspicions are that they are unscrupulous enough to cannibalize parts for publication, near or abroad, should they need to bolster their research record.

And since this institution recently fell out of ‘the top ten’ (in the TLS world rankings) these are steps that might well be contemplated. I never really did it for the publication prestige or for even a teaching position – since I only enrolled at that university with the thesis in my 50s and it was mutually agreed that no teaching could follow at that stage, what I wanted was something far more modest. It was agreed this condition was valid and that I would receive this much (in choice of kind of examiner) but then denied me when it was too late to withdraw from the university (once a doctorate is submitted) or go elsewhere with it.

Ha ha! Joke was on me, right?

Honi soit qui mal y pense.

Anyway the main planks of the thesis are now embedded in the blog and I’ll just round off the number of posts to 100 and move on.

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