Lichtenstein’s Untitled or Man with Chest Expander (c.1961)

There is one historian among those specializing in Roy Lichtenstein's art who has begun to get the measure of the man and that is Graham Bader. Partly inspired by the now-august Michael Fried, who long ago identified self-referential aspects in Gustave Courbet's art and Caravaggio's too (much less so in Edouard Manet's) , Bader has begun to do the same with Lichtenstein and at least one other scholar has recently followed his lead.1 Bader's analysis of Lichtenstein's early drawings using commercial imagery make precisely the same connections that I would here. He identifies two early images of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck as "oblique self-portraits, early ruminations on how to draw" and two others of an ice cream cone and a baked potato as "self-conscious reflections on artistic work, their melting dessert and butter understood to be metaphors for the viscous stuff of image making itself."2 In other words, Lichtenstein's seemingly impersonal subject matter is art.

Isabelle Dervaux, who wrote the catalogue entries for a recent exhibition, has rightly noted of the man with the chest expander at left that his boyish looks and hairstyle resemble the artist himself and that the elastic bands of the chest expander are like the lines of a drawing, the basic element of draughtmanship.3 His hands, at either end, pull the lines just as his own hands drew them.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Lichtenstein, Untitled or Man with Chest Expander (c.1961) Felt-tip marker on numbered page ledger. The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation Collection.

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She could also have mentioned in support of her observation that the man has more on his mind than just the drawn lines of a felt-tip marker. His hair, to the left of his parting, has been made to resemble the tip of a paintbrush facing downwards. He is a boy trying to become a he-man or god with paint on his mind.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Lichtenstein's Untitled or Man with Chest Expander (c.1961) with photograph of paintbrush inserted.

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Lastly, look-out for these other features: the artist's initials, a hidden eye and divinity. What we see of the man's abdomen is unnaturally shaped into a semi-circle near the edge, a very common (though, little-known) position for the artist's hidden "eye". Everything above the eye is then metaphorically (and literally located) in his mind. This "eye", like the "crucified" arms inside the circle of Leonardo's Vitruvian Man, suggests inner divinity: there is a Cross inside. Perhaps the prominent copyright symbol to the left further emphasizes this feature: a C for Christ inside a circle again.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Diagram of Lichtenstein's Untitled or Man with Chest Expander (c.1961)
Bottom: Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvian Man (c.1490)

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Lastly, though fairly subtle, Lichtenstein again includes his initials as other forms. The handle of the instrument by his right thumb is, as so often, only roughly shaped like an R. The other handle is an O while, horizontally and fractured, his collar-bone spells Y. These, then, are Roy's hands and head. Practice with lines, this image infers, is as important to an artist aiming for divinity as practice with a chest expander was to a 1960's body-builder.

For the kingly significance of the name, ROY, see Lichtenstein's Alka-Seltzer (1966).

Captions for image(s) above:

Diagram of Lichtenstein's Untitled or Man with Chest Expander (c.1961)

Click image to enlarge.

Notes:

1. Bader, Hall of Mirrors: Roy Lichtenstein and the Face of Painting in the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press) 2010, pp. xxx-xxxi

2. Bader, "Drawing Touch" in Roy Lichtenstein: The Black-and-White Drawings, 1961-1968 (New York: The Morgan Library) 2011, p. 46

3. Roy Lichtenstein: The Black-and-White Drawings, 1961-1968, p. 92

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 22 Jan 2013. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.