I once tried to buy an original Roy Lichtenstein at a garage sale. I was 9 years old and when I asked the owner “if the piece was authentic,” he laughed for a moment before becoming deathly serious and telling me that, yes, indeed it was. He had a vaguely Santa Claus-ish belly and a beard to match, so I figured I had no reason to doubt him. I had also found that one could never go wrong at garage sales. The bike I was riding on that very day had been bought at a garage sale the previous week, and once my tetanus shots had been brought up to date, I rode it everywhere.
The piece in question showed an impossibly glamorous blonde woman, theatrically pressing her hand against the side of her face and saying something like “Maybe he got busy and couldn’t get out of the office,” although I don’t remember the exact words. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have gotten off my new bike to walk through rows of vintage-meets-shabby-chic-meets-halfway-house couture, but something about the painting (or probably print, as I now realize) had caught my attention from the street. I liked that the blonde woman’s emotions were instantly recognizable; a speech bubble told me exactly what she was thinking, and the bright colors and comic-style print exaggerated her loneliness, causing her despair to burst off the page.
A year before, I had wandered through the Prado in Madrid, completely befuddled as my audiotape informed me that a picture of a woman sitting in a lake represented female oppression, sexual desire and also probably genocide. Looking at that woman’s face — masklike, composed and impassive — I was forced to admit to myself that the canvas made me feel nothing, that I couldn’t get past the surface. Lichtenstein’s woman was different. There was nothing to get past, she was all surface and the surface told me everything I needed to know. As I fished three crumpled dollars out of my pocket, I looked one last time at the woman, to be sure I was ready to make such a hefty investment. I was; it was worth it. When I offered Bargain Bin Santa Claus the three dollars, he laughed in a somewhat spiteful way, and informed me that he needed at least ten. Even by garage sale standards I was tragically underfunded. I rode my bike away, devastated in the all-encompassing but completely transient way unique to 9-year-olds. But I did have one thought to console myself. A painting (or print or whatever) had actually made me feel something. I had finally seen real art.