"There are certain artists that students should encounter firsthand," says Bruce, "and Pop Art is probably one of the most important art forms that has come out of this country."
Back in the 1960s, when Lichtenstein and Warhol were making names for themselves (in fact, they both had their breakout years in 1961), it might have been a stretch to lay down hard-earned cash for a painting of a panel from a comic book. But that's just what Portland collector Jordan Schnitzer did. He has a massive collection, and after arranging a meeting, Bruce convinced him to bring a show of 77 Lichtenstein prints to Pullman. (Normally, you'd have to fly to Paris or New York to see such a collection on display.)
One art critic of the era dubbed Lichtenstein the worst artist in America. And you can kind of see why. At a casual glance, his recreations of old comic strip panels can come off as lazy -- "I could do that," one might think. (It is worth noting that Lichtenstein's 40-plus years as an artist were not all spent on the comic panels he's famous for; he also dabbled in cubism, landscapes and even surrealism.) But the more you think about it, the more complicated it gets. What's so different about recreating a kiss from a comic strip than in recreating a Roman ruler's face? Both images are icons of their times, able to create deep emotional impacts, both are copied as closely as the respective artists can manage and both say a lot about the culture of the time in a simple way.
But while a bust of Caesar was a representation of reality, Pop Art is clearly postmodern in that it takes it a step further. Lichtenstein's panels are his interpretations (he incorporated minor changes from his subjects) of somebody else's interpretation of reality. By putting an exploding fighter jet up on a gallery wall -- culled from an image that may have thrilled him as a child -- he pointed out that the images we regularly come into contact with have a more monumental impact than we might think. Just as, perhaps, passing by images of Caesar every day impacted a Roman kid.
Warhol famously said that Pop Art was art for average people, and Bruce agrees that the movement may have been taking its cues from the civil rights and women's rights movements of the '60s.
"It's the elevation of something not considered to be worthy," says Bruce. "It's that whole American leveling."
Pop Art was inevitable, but Lichtenstein and Warhol did manage to invent it, helping to create an enduring ethic that everything is art -- and if it's not, it should be. Pop Art is everywhere today, most often in the service of commerce (coming full circle from that Campbell's soup can). Any ad for Target or Old Navy embraces the Pop Art ethic that the mundane can be monumental if you look at it in just the right way.
The Roy Lichtenstein Print Retrospective runs from Sept. 24-Dec. 16 at the WSU Museum of Art. There will be a lecture by Lichtenstein scholar Elizabeth Brown on Sept. 26. Call (509) 335-3581.