In 1990 Melvyn Bragg interviewed Roy Lichtenstein for The South Bank Show, filming the artist in his studio in New York. Lichtenstein, who died in 1997, was the artist hailed by one newspaper in 1964 as ‘One of the Worst Artists in America Today’ but whose works now fetch tens of millions. In the opening moments of the documentary we see his Torpedo…Los! achieve $5.5 million at auction, a record at the time.
Lichtenstein is a man who one would have found very difficult to dislike, with a twinkling innocence and an honesty that is innately watchable. He and Bragg trace the progress of a remarkable career beginning with his famous enlarged comic strip panels and his trademark use of the Benday dot. Lichtenstein also demonstrates his process of enlargement for the cameras and various recognisable techniques of The South Bank Show, such as the artist confronting his work as an overhead projection, are used to good effect.
The conversation proceeds to later works, including his keen engagement with art history and the age-old question of what makes art, art. Lichtenstein uses the contemporary imagery of Pop Art, inspired by comic strips and “the tremendous force” of advertising, to make reproductions of famous works by Picasso. Similarly, Monet’s Rouen Cathedral paintings are rendered in a stark, mechanical collage, or “Impressionism by machine”.
The film also accompanies Lichtenstein as he goes to see some of Picasso’s work at first hand for the first time. It may strike one as odd that the painter would not have gone to see the work of an artist he so greatly admires before, but actually this reflects a prevalent strain of artistic isolationism. As Lichtenstein has earlier acknowledged, “I haven’t lived in the kind of America that I portray.”
The artist, in fact, comes over as rather a delicate creature of habit — according to Bragg he “rarely goes out” except to the diner where he and his wife have lunch every day, same time, same table. Similarly, when he accepts a commission to create a mural for the Times Square subway station he declines even to visit the intended site. Lichtenstein keeps himself very insulated, and the question remains, hinted at in the final sequence, whether these eccentricities have been a help or a hindrance to his artistic development.
Extras include an information booklet, picture gallery and trailers.
Art Lives, from Arthaus, is a powerful and arresting series of documentaries on artists and art movements released for the first time on DVD in the English language.