Catalog of the exhibition by James Rondeau and Sheena Wagstaff with contributions by Clare Bell, Yve-Alain Bois, and others
Art Institute of Chicago/ Tate Modern/Yale University Press, 368 pp., $65.00
McNay Art Museum/DAP/ Distributed Art Publishers, 79 pp., $29.95
One of the more memorable encounters in the history of modern art occurred late in 1961 when the period’s preeminent avant-garde dealer, Leo Castelli, paid a call at the Upper East Side Manhattan townhouse-cum-studio of Andy Warhol, whose pioneering Pop paintings based on cartoon characters including Dick Tracy, the Little King, Nancy, Popeye, and Superman had caught the eye of Castelli’s gallery director, Ivan Karp, who in turn urged his boss to go have a look for himself. Warhol, eager to make the difficult leap from commercial artist to “serious” painter, decades later recalled his crushing disappointment when Castelli coolly told him, “Well, it’s unfortunate, the timing, because I just took on Roy Lichtenstein, and the two of you in the same gallery would collide.”
Although Lichtenstein, then a thirty-eight-year-old assistant art professor at Rutgers University’s Douglass College in New Jersey, was also making pictures based on comic-book prototypes—an example of wholly independent multiple discovery not unlike such scientific findings as calculus, oxygen, photography, and evolution—he and Warhol were in fact doing quite different things with similar source material, as the divergent tangents of their later careers would amply demonstrate. By 1964, Castelli recognized his mistake and added the thwarted aspirant to his gallery roster, though not before Warhol forswore cartoon imagery, fearful of seeming to imitate Lichtenstein, of whom he always remained somewhat in awe.
In fact, what Lichtenstein and his five-years-younger contemporary Warhol had most in common was being the foremost exemplars of Cool among their generation of American visual artists. The first half of the 1960s was the apogee of what might be termed the Age of Cool—as defined by that quality of being simultaneously with-it and disengaged, in control but nonchalant, knowing but ironically self-aware, and above all inscrutably undemonstrative.
Coolness (which was largely but not exclusively a male attribute) suffused American culture back then, from our supremely compartmentalized commander in chief, John Kennedy, to the action-movie star Steve McQueen, nicknamed “The King of Cool,” and from the middle-class cool of the TV talk-show host Johnny Carson to the far-out jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, whose LP album Birth of the Cool could serve as the soundtrack for that brief interlude before things suddenly turned hot toward the end of the Sixties. Coolness even had its own philosopher-theoretician, Marshall McLuhan, whose influential treatise Understanding Media (1964) codified comic books and television as “cool” means of communication.
Today, a quarter-century after Warhol’s death and fifteen years after Lichtenstein’s (in a hideous coincidence, both unexpectedly succumbed after what had been deemed routine hospital procedures), they remain the two Pop artists best known to the general public, if only in the most simplistic terms, with Warhol as the Campbell’s Soup guy and Lichtenstein as the cartoon guy. A pair of exhibitions that nearly overlapped this…
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