"A kiss is just a kiss," Louis Armstrong crooned in the 1942 movie "As Time Goes By" – unless it’s a painting of a kiss by Roy Lichtenstein. Then it’s more than a smooch. It’s big business, selling at Christie’s for $31.1 million. And, as astronomical as that price was for what amounts to a traced comic book image, it was the least pricey of all his images also traced out of comic books.

Best seller

The current edition of Art News headlined a story “The Most Expensive Works by Roy Lichtenstein” about a picture he called "Masterpiece". Painted in his typical comic-book style, it fetched a whopping $165 million.

How steep is that? Consider that a self-portrait by Rembrandt sold last year for $18.7 million.

And just this past month, the auction news site Timaxglobal posted a rundown of the most expensive paintings by any artist, and Lichtenstein’s Masterpiece topped them all. Not bad for an artist who Life Magazine worried was not original in a 1964 article headlined, “Is He the Worst Artist in the U.S.?”

Compare the $165 million sale for "Masterpiece" with the July sale of JMW Turner’s "Purfleet and the Essex Shore" that went for $6.6 million and Anthony van Dyke’s "Family Portrait of the Painter Cornelis de Vos and his wife Suzanna Cock and their two children" auctioned off for $3.4 million.

Hard look

The record-breaking purchase price of "Masterpiece" calls for a hard look at what it pictures; although even a casual glance is all you need to take in the image: a man and woman gazing at a canvas out of our view as the woman says, “Brad darling, this painting is a masterpiece!

Soon you’ll have all of New York clamoring for your work.” What was Lichtenstein saying in this picture?

My guess - he was making fun of the art world for thinking his work is art. As it turned out, the woman in his picture was right. The painting became the most valued of all his works. For a leg-pulling, no less. Whose leg?

Probably art critics who take his work seriously.

In 2014, BBC art critic Alastair Sooke called him “a modern master,” explaining that the “cool, detached” air of his cartoons “repudiates the overheated gestural spontaneity of the brushwork of Lichtenstein’s immediate predecessors” - the Abstract-Expressionists.

High praise

And when it comes to "Masterpiece", The Guardian art critic Adrian Searle saw it as way more than a yuk in his review of the artist’s retro at Tate Modern in 2013.

He said that when Masterpiece first went on display in Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, he thought it “aspirational.”

But it was more than wishful thinking, wasn’t it? Wasn’t Lichtenstein commenting on the ease with which empty-headed works like his are applauded? After all, didn’t he famously say that his pictures are “anti-contemplative”? And isn’t that a fair description of Pop Art? How else to explain Warhol’s Brillo boxes?

Yet, Searle found meaning in Lichtenstein’s cartoons, saying they “deflated the macho mystique” of Abstract Expressionism with easily grasped pictures. Searle even went further, alluding to the “psychological implications” of the cartoons.

But wait, when Searle ended his take on the Tate retro, he did a 180 and said that Lichtenstein was “pretty much all style and manner.” He even went so far as to say that he "felt bludgeoned by his arch-sophistication; his detachment becomes an icy, stylish chill."

Hard to figure how you can feel bludgeoned by skin-deep pictures.