Art · The Comfort Zone

Roy Lichtenstein’s “As I Opened Fire, 1964.”

Lichtenstein’s American Dream.

This is a large piece that is typical of Lichtenstein’s oeuvre. It is garish, blunt and has the occasional stroke of a paintbrush. Other than that, it was a case of masking it off and using carefully prepared rollers to fill in the poster-paint colours or to paint across a piece of serrated aluminium to get the impression of all the dots – these were not done individually in the way the experts at the Stedelijk suggest.

This is a large piece that is typical of Lichtenstein’s oeuvre. It is garish, blunt and has the occasional stroke of a paintbrush. Other than that, it was a case of masking it off and using carefully prepared rollers to fill in the poster-paint colours
This is a big painting. Really big. But big is the American dream, right?
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Permanent collection.

The making of this picture would be hard work, it would be a trial of anyone’s patience. I won’t speak of the nature of art, because there are paintings that lend themselves to that with more ease. After all, if I speak out against Americans, American corporations get upset and trash my blog’s ratings.

Anybody who knows anything about Roy Lichtenstein will know that his branch of Pop art culture features huge reproductions of comic book pictures. As you can see from the photograph, they can be very big indeed. This is at the Stedelijk museum in Amsterdam where it is on show in the basement.

Lichtenstein had enormous numbers of comic books, which he would pore over until inspiration was evoked. He would cut it out, photograph it and using a projector, enlarge it onto canvas. All well and good. Here the art is very much the ‘idea’ of the piece rather than anything the artist is trying to say with it. But then, the entire point of art is to share that which inspires you – and my next post will share something that was a genuine treat for me. If the only thing the artist wants to share is the general idea, there isn’t going to be much by way of inspiration.

The skill needed to paint like this isn't very great, Lichtenstein had the idea, and that was pretty well where his art stopped.
Showing the poster paint that Lichtenstein will have used along with some rare brush strokes (in black).
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, permanent collection.

Never mind that; there’s enough in the picture that Lichtenstein didn’t notice that is still there if you know what you’re looking for. Art, any kind of art where the artist gets to choose their subject, is an expression of that artist’s likes and dislikes. It’s quite normal for a person to be happy with the things they like and it’s quite understandable that they will reject the things that make them feel uncomfortable – this, as you can imagine, leads to the binary world of ‘us and them’ and is largely irrelevant to the things that humanity needs if we are to have a future.

Roy Lichtenstein was delighted by his comic books and since he could make a living by making pictures from them, he could continue without much by way of question. On that fateful day in 1964, he opened a comic about a war story that must have blown his mind. Anything less would have left him without the kind of energy needed to tackle a piece this size. So off he went, tick, tock, tick, tock and at last it was finished (1).

What was it that Lichtenstein saw in these three drawings? There is the obvious allusion to the all-American hero, but then, this is a war comic. It was a war comic that Lichtenstein liked, though, and heroes speak to the American mind because they do things that the ordinary Joe Doe could never do. Unless, of course, they were in that position themselves. But this is the point of machinery: it allows the ordinary person to become Superman. The downside is that it leaves a lot more to chance than it does the skilled man. Napoleon didn’t win his battles because he left things to chance.

It was chance that led the pilot to be where he was. We don’t know his name – not at least from the painting. All we know about him is that he’s a pilot with a friend called Tex and he has just found himself underneath the enemy. Nor would we even know that without it being written there in clear text. There really is too much to cram into three small boxes in a comic.

Chance is not how comic books work. Comic books aren’t comics because they detail the daily grind of the pilot’s check procedures before each and every flight. That wouldn’t sell any comics, would it? The mind of the American needs shaking awake by the unusual circumstance: the firing of bullets. Even in wartime, the firing of bullets by a war plane was very much the exception.

Masking off will have taken a lot of time and energy, which Lichtenstein had when inspired.
The work in masking this off shows that at times, it’s easier to use a brush.
Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, permanent collection.

A plane of any kind will have around 15 seconds’ worth of ammunition. Not a great deal when you think of the hours the machine can spend in flight. Never mind that, you can’t sell comic books on the back of boring, hum-drum reality, can you? Americans like comic books because their lives are filled with the hum-drum and the comic is an exciting escape from that. My guess is that it was this feeling that inspired Lichtenstein to undertake the massive amount of labour involved in a picture of this size.

So that’s it, really. The bullets are gone, the job is done and since the pilot’s loosed off all his ammo and his job is done. But this is war, and the mechanical kind of war is the unexpected. Joseph Heller experienced the realities of being shot at by people who intended to kill him and he described a lot of it (but by no means all) in his book ‘Catch 22’ which might (or might not) be the subject of a future series of posts.

It was Heller who captured the anti-hero, who in truth, is by far the larger proportion of ordinary people who fought in the war. Ordinary guys who did their duty, followed orders and generally had a tough time of it. Whatever the comic book reader is escaping from in his hum-drum world, and there is once thing that is certain: the reality of war is something they would not want to escape into. I have flown over active war zones, I was a kid and we flew over war torn Vietnam in the early 70s. In the way civilian aircraft fly close to the war zones in the Ukraine. Not close enough to get into danger, these are passenger jets and are kept well away from the hot spots (2). Military aircraft are a different matter.

“Dobbs, at the pilot’s controls in his formation, zigged when he should have zagged, skidding his plane into the plane alongside, chewing off its tail. His wing broke off at the base and his plane dropped like a rock and was out of sight in an instant. There was no fire, no smoke, not the slightest untoward noise. The remaining wing revolved as ponderously as a grinding cement mixer [ … ] it was all over in seconds.
Joseph Heller, ‘Catch 22’

What will have stirred Lichtenstein is the fact that the enemy pilot won’t know what hit him. It’s the ‘we know and you don’t know’ that grasps the mind of the reader who is in search of excitement. That it is the result of pure chance is of no consequence whatever. The enemy pilot has not the remotest clue that there was someone underneath him. One moment he’s on a routine mission the next there’s smoke billowing from his engine. Then there are the fields turning slowly around in front of him.

It would seem that the American Dream leaves a lot to chance, and when it happens, it happens in an instant. After all, you’ve only got 15 seconds’ worth of ammunition in your ship.

(1) The source of the subject matter is Jerry Grandenetti’s panels from “Wingmate of Doom,” in All American Men of War, no. 90 (March–April 1962), DC Comics. [Wikipedia].
(2) This is the tale of a passenger jet. ‘The Wrong Day To Travel.


My post entitled ‘Sitting To Table‘ describes another example of modern art where the concept is all and the artistry is at the bare minimum. (Click here).

2 thoughts on “Roy Lichtenstein’s “As I Opened Fire, 1964.”

  1. I found your sympathetic commentary on Lichtensteins imagery interesting. I appreciate the way you have endeavoured to enter into why he may have chosen this image – what moved him.
    Thank You.

    I wonder if Lichtenstein ever paid royalties to the comic book artists (who probably had homes and loved ones to support) whose work he made use of.
    Making use of other people’s creativity without acknowledging it has become acceptable in the art world.
    Duchamp did not design or fabricate his famous urinal – it came from the mind an unknown industrial designer. Ian Hamilton Findlay’s ‘Sailing Dinghy’ may have been loved by him but its beauty of line and fitness for purpose were crafted by someone else, someone whose name is never mentioned whenever it is displayed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was going to dig into the rather dull way Lichtenstein did his painting, but pulled back from that, having found a more interesting line to follow.

    Pop culture is derivative in almost everything it does, but here we follow a very modern trend. From the 1880s onwards, the neo-gothic style of architecture was one that derived everything it did from the late medieval style. Copy catting to put it mildly. The so-called modernists could only think in squares and rectangles in the way Malevich did. Nothing to see here! It was either looking back or looking into a mind that could imagine nothing at all. All Lichtenstein could do was to look in a comic and find something that he liked. Not very original, is it? Especially when he had developed the technique and all that was required was to do another …

    As to the issue of copyright, these paintings are not printed material in the way that some of Warhol’s work is. Either way, it stood as a kind of advertising, and any prosecution would have been detrimental and costly.

    I’m not familiar with Duchamp’s urinal, but to me the point of Hamilton’s dingy isn’t the dinghy, but the poem he painted on the wall. It does beg the question as to whether it was art even as a poem. There is too much that is conceptual in the world of modern art, where the art is in the idea and not the execution – but this forgets that the truth of art is that it should convey the artist’s inner vision to us in as direct a manner possible. That does require a person to be able to empatize with the artist. Gainsborough was exceptionally gifted in this respect and there’s a couple of his paintings at the Rijksmuseum – which I would have seen but for a power cut. It did lead to my visiting the Stedelijk next door, though… and seeing boring Lichtenstein again.

    Liked by 1 person

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