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A nod to beat poet Allan Ginsberg’s anthology, The New Fall of America shows Lichtenstein’s artistic approach to social commentary. The artist’s growing expertise in the field coincided with the technical renaissance of American printmaking.
Lichtenstein skilfully achieved tone and texture in his works by employing his iconic Ben Day dots, regularised patterns, thick black outlines and saturated primary colours. As a rule, his schematised compositions were abstracted from comic strips, as well as fine art sources.
The common denominator for American poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) and Lichtenstein’s artistic experimentation was their desire to engage in social commentary. They were born and both raised during the infamous jazz age of the 1930s. Therefore, the musical influence of the era also stayed with them throughout their respective careers.
In their creative endeavours, Lichtenstein and Ginsberg both aimed to detach themselves from the declining attributes of their homeland, induced by social upheaval and industrial reach. They ridiculed the country’s political mishaps and social wrongdoings from a distance, only to realise that they too are, for better or worse, America incarnated. For this reason, they both felt the need to shed light on what was still salvageable; literature, art and freedom of expression.
Ginsberg was a central member of the Beat Generation, a literary movement occupied with contemplating American culture and politics in the post-war era. His 1972 poetry collection, The Fall Of America, was an extensive literary statement detailing the political unrest the US experienced in the aftermath of World War II. Two decades after the publication of Ginsberg’s poems, Lichtenstein was entrusted with illustrating a new edition of the book.
Ginsberg related the irregular, improvisatory and oftentimes unpunctuated structure of his writings directly to jazz. As in jazz, Ginsberg was not hoping to convey an inherent narrative. Rather, he wished to communicate the power of spontaneity, humanity and rhythm. His written pieces were meant to be heard aloud by the public, on account of the conversational nature of their content. In this regard, Ginsberg emphasised his medium in the same manner Lichtenstein sought to highlight the act of seeing over what was portrayed in his prints.
Lichtenstein’s The New Fall Of America, executed in 1992, draws on Ginsberg’s instinctive style of expression, introducing the artist’s only foray into the world of illustrated books. The suite is predicated on a selection of poems and contains nine richly coloured prints and one black and white etching. The portfolio showcases minimalistic, vignette-style illustrations, merging serene landscapes with cubist industrial visions.
Ginsberg’s poetry in The Fall Of America blends multiple reference sources, touching on intimate inner monologues, frantic travel diaries and factual journalistic observations. Therefore, Lichtenstein’s stylised visual language aims to be equally associative and consciously graphic. The New Fall of America succeeds in lightly conflating the various thematic layers referenced by Ginsberg into an emotive illustration of each poem. Lichtenstein’s simplistic comic book imagery complements Ginsberg’s chronicles of the 1970s beautifully. The artist translates the poet’s prophetic messages into suggestive and accessible snapshots of contemporary America.
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