Thursday, 30 August 2012


In November 1968, the New York  hip and trendy, always eager to check out the latest hot spot, found there was a new kid on the block. And not just any kid. Situated on First Avenue, it was called On 1st, and the name covered the entire facade. There was no shop window; whatever went on inside could only be seen on a number of television screens placed in the centre of the huge O. The entrance,  a double-door tinted like sunglasses with black painted doors behind it, was formed by the letter N.
Whoever ventured inside must have been amazed. The interior was covered with blue carpet, not only wall-of-wall, but also right up to the ceiling. ‘Everything for sale is as different as the shop is from others’,  Eugenia  Sheppard wrote in the St Petersburg Times,   ‘Art turned into some kind of usable object.’

The genius, if that’s what it is, behind the project turned out to be as fashion photographer Bert Stern, who had conceived the idea of a shop with objects for the home designed by artists or fashion designers. Apart from promoting the Marilyn photographs that he had taken six years earlier ( the Last Sitting series) by having them transferred to anything from scarves to wallpaper, Stern invited a host of artists and designers, because  On 1st was meant to be a shop of ideas. There was even an artist in residence, whose task was to produce them,  whether they were usable or not. His name was James Lee Byars, a man who, in Sheppard’s words, ‘looked like a Mennonite father with shoulder-length hair, a wide-brimmed black hat and a frock coat’.  She found him sitting in Stern’s office, the floor scattered with sketches on pink paper.

On 1st was a thrilling, but short-lived adventure.  The shop was closed in what must have been a matter of months , if not weeks.  Curiously enough, the fact that it is remembered at all is largely due to Roy Lichtenstein. In any Google search his name is almost invariably coupled with that of the shop, perhaps even more often than that of Stern himself.  The reason is that Lichtenstein made some of the most important contributions to the project, and while the shop itself came and went, some of its products lived on and as Lichtenstein’s fame rose, the objects he designed for On 1st acquired legendary status.  They  include the  wrapping paper, a high polish wallpaper that looked like stainless steel, and, most famous of all, the silkscreened paper plates. These were originally sold in shrink-wrapped sets of ten, a bargain at $3, and many of them must simply have been thrown away. What copies survived have since become rare and highly desirable.  They now count as official Lichtenstein multiples and are listed in Mary Lee Corlett’s catalogue raisonn√© of Lichtenstein’s prints.  It is by no means uncommon to see them offered, neatly framed, in high-end art galleries,  ‘price on request’.  In other words, they have attained the status of Art.


 Some people might argue that in looking upon these and similar objects as objets d’art, we have come a long way from the artists’ original intentions, which were based on the idea of making original art available to a large public. And  they do have a point there. On the other hand, with prices for Lichtenstein paintings soaring from one auction record to the next, the discrepancy between the original prices of multiples and ephemera and the prices you have to pay for them today is perhaps not, proportionally, so very different from those of his paintings. 
While Lichtenstein originals, and even prints, have risen far beyond the means of the vast majority of art lovers, the multiples , or artists’ ephemera, at least leave the not-so-well-to-do  collector (the man or woman who genuinely interested in art for its own sake, as opposed to the professional art investor and the art speculator) an opportunity to obtain an original Lichtenstein design at a price he can afford. After all, collecting is, or ought to be, a matter of art, not merely a matter of money.
Perhaps it is time to consider a re-definition of the ‘art collector’ and broaden it sufficiently to include the man who is happy to obtain an old issue of Time Magazine with Lichtenstein’s portrait of Bobby Kennedy on the cover, or a piece of wallpaper from Bert Stern’s shop, or an original poster for the Salzburger Festspiele. And yes, those, too, will originally have been sold at a fraction of the price you’ll have to pay for them now. But even so they can bring back some of the sheer joy of collecting that a hysterical art market has taken away from us.
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In 1990, Melvyn Bragg interviewed Lichtenstein for the BBC. In the first part (the other five can also be found on YouTube) he looks back on the rise of pop art in the early sixties.


 From: Pop Kunst. Stockholm, 1964. Click HERE

Roy Lichtenstein died in 1997. One of the last exhibitions during his lifetime was held 1995 in the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg, Germany, where photographer Klaus Behr took this picture showing an American icon in the frailty of old age:

For more details, click HERE