Thursday, 18 December 2014

8 words about Lichtenstein

I've just come across a text Sylvester wrote about Roy Lichtenstein in 1997 (soon after the artist's death, I believe), which prefaced a slim volume containing his two interviews with the Pop artist (from 1966 and 1997). I wanted to write something quickly about the last sentence, because it's one of those instances where I'm reminded again what I like most about Sylvester. To put it in context, it concludes a paragraph discussing Lichtenstein's 'constant tentativeness'. I'll give the final few sentences:

With Pop Art, where, as Lichtenstein says, "before you start painting the painting, you know exactly what it's going to look like", it might be supposed that the artist, before he starts painting any painting, knows exactly what he's trying to do. But Lichtenstein did not know exactly what he was trying to do- for all the acuity of his intelligence- did not quite know what he was aiming to achieve in terms of form, was far from being sure what his attitude was towards his subject matter. He says that Cubism was the main source of his style. Among the Cubists, Gleizes and Metzinger knew exactly what they were trying to do. Braque and Picasso were working in the dark. It probably always is like that in art.

What I like about it is how Sylvester demonstrates such precision and conciseness but doesn't get carried away by it. For argument's sake, imagine that by some miracle I'd managed to write the sentences above, bar the last. At that point, I would be feeling so pleased with myself for having written the sentences 'Among the the dark' that I'd be thinking 'now for the final flourish', the same way I sign my name with an ostentatious swipe at the end. I can imagine myself, or many other lesser writers for that matter, concluding with either 'That's how art is' or 'That's how it goes'.
What I definitely wouldn't do is put two adverbs together- 'probably always'? Anyone who does that isn't putting style first. I expect Sylvester could've come up with something more emphatic and elegant, even by just leaving out 'probably', which would fit better in a sense. But like Lichtenstein, he wasn't certain. Even as he puts his case so persuasively, he doesn't preclude the chance someone will come back with a counter-example. He doesn't try to dazzle you with his style, even if he nonetheless does.

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