Letter from Chicago: Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective

May 17th, 2012  |  Published in *, May 2012  |  6 Comments

"Look Mickey", 1961. Oil on canvas. 48 x 69 in. © National Gallery of Art. The National Gallery of Art. Dorothy and Roy Lichtenstein, Gift of the artist, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery.

Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective

Art Institute of Chicago

May 22 to September 3, 2012

“Whaam!  Bratatat!  Varoom!  The Art Institute of Chicago explodes this summer with the energy of Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) in the largest exhibition of the seminal Pop artist to date.  More than 160 of Lichtenstein’s works, from the familiar to the completely unexpected, will be on view in the first of only two American venues for Roy Lichtenstein:  A Retrospective.” 1 This retrospective is of such eminence, it travels to the National Gallery of Art in Washington October 14, 2012 to January 13, 2013, to the Tate Modern February 21 to May 27, 2013 and finally to the Centre Pompidou, Paris, July 3 to November 4, 2013.

Walking through this extensive exhibition and viewing the artwork, I propose that we examine Roy Lichtenstein’s early and enduring influence from Cubism on his thinking and on his entire oeuvre. “The long arc of Lichtenstein’s artistic career…begins with his formal training at Ohio State University continuing through his graduate years following his service in World War II.”2 His early student work shows Cubist-inspired renditions followed by some gestural abstractions in the Abstract Expressionist vein.  The earliest painting in the show is the 1951 Washington Crossing the Delaware (after Leutze) rendered in faux-naïve Cubism. While teaching at Douglass College, Rutgers, he met Allen Kaprow, Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg all who advocated art rooted in everyday life.  This is also a basis of Cubism where Braque, Picasso and others of the Cubist roster took objects and manufactured materials from everyday life to reorganize the content and facture of painting.

Roy Lichtenstein’s genius is his seminal gesture of appropriating from comics, cartoons, catalogs and magazines – material from everyday American life. These were decidedly as lowbrow as source material as Braque’s depictions of a carafe, newspaper and actual chair caning were in the first decades of the twentieth century.  The next earliest paintings are Lichtenstein’s 1959 Untitled and 1960 Untitled: small, pedestrian, abstract oil paintings.  They are frankly boring, revealing that he simply does not fit into the Ab Ex mold, as  co-curator Art Institute’s James Rondeau admits in the press preview’s opening remarks “Turgid self-release was not in Roy Lichtenstein’s personality.”3

Enter Look Mickey (1961) and there is a blast of fresh air – Lichtenstein found a form and a methodology suitable to his very fertile and flexible artistic sensibility. Interestingly, in Europe, and I am guessing Lichtenstein was unknown to them, Gerhardt Richter and Sigmar Polke were exploring everyday subjects and newspaper sources, mimicking the pulpy dot patterns of newspaper reproductions too. John Caldwell announces in his essay for the 1990 Sigmar Polke monograph, that Polke had knowledge of Roy Lichtenstein’s dot pattern work, but I cannot imagine that as a student in postwar Dusseldorf in 1963, Polke had the resources to access costly American books and art magazines.4 Besides, Look Mickey wasn’t viewed until its 1964 Life magazine premier. I imagine Look Mickey came to life simultaneously in America as Polke’s 1963 Table and 1964 Chocolate Painting did in Germany. The new consumerism and advertising that washed over America after World War II provided rich source materials for aggressive young American painters at the same time it underscored the have-nots of postwar Europe struggling to rebuild their cities and countries.  In America, Mickey Mouse was frolicking on our new black and white TV’s and Mars bars were in most kids’ reach at the corner store. Roy’s widow Dorothy Lichtenstein was interviewed for the press opening and she revealed that when Lichtenstein made the seminal gesture to appropriate his first cartoon, he had to get beyond the level of his own taste.  Lucky for us he did so, and created such iconic Pop masterpieces as Look Mickey, Whaam! Torpedos Los! and Drowning Girl.

I want to draw another parallel to Lichtenstein’s Cubist predecessors and their use of manufactured materials and mechanical processes. The Cubists used the combing techniques of French decorators, creating uniform patterns and swirls with a comb tool, a gesture of desensitization. Lichtenstein used the dot patterns from comics and inexpensive magazine and newspaper reproductions. He also drew from a wonderful array of expressive, stylized notations deployed in the comic industry: lettering, dashes, dots, stripes, diagonals and other stripped down signifiers. As shocking as Braque gluing a piece of chair cane to the center of a canvas was Roy Lichtenstein’s painstaking lettering of “OHHH…ALRIGHT” onto one of his comic-inspired paintings. Yet underlying this lowbrow content and style is an enduring love of the history of painting and impeccable compositions and craftsmanship.

All of Roy Lichtenstein’s oeuvre shows an elegant design sensibility of the highest order and his parsing of spatial information contained in cartoon design strategies is nonetheless highly elegant, as were the Cubist masterpieces I feel he drew from.  Riding home from the preview on Amtrak, I read Richard Kalina’s “Harmony and Discord” essay on the Roy Lichtenstein Retrospective in the May issue of Art in America. Kalina argues for the underlying abstraction in Roy Lichtenstein’s artwork and I think Kalina and I are arguing two sides of the same coin.  In viewing the whole exhibition slowly, and after decades of looking at Lichtenstein’s paintings, I see the special ordering consistent in his paintings that draw from Cubist ordering of and breaking up of form into a new pictorial structure. Lichtenstein’s paintings remain elegant no matter what lowbrow forms act as carriers. He doesn’t use commercial sources in the way James Rosenquist or Andy Warhol do. Lichtenstein tenderly reorders every inch of his appropriated sources toward flatness, abstraction, often multiple viewpoints and always toward elegance. In this he honors his European predecessors.

So naturally it is important to discuss the Rowlux landscapes of 1964 and 1965 to further analyze his parsing of spatial information. The Rowlux paintings could become tacky rather quickly, but Lichtenstein holds them in check with careful horizontal delineations of sky/land or sky/ocean. Rowlux is a special, lenticular plastic that provides a dimensional op-art effect; think Las Vegas or 60’s drum sets. Lichtenstein uses two different patterns of Rowlux to represent sky/land or sky/ocean. He adheres a somewhat uneven ribbon of hand painted paper that delineates sky from land or ocean and brings us to a place of imagining this as a riveting sunset, all pink swirly reflections in some faraway ocean. He also made landscapes using perforated metal screen placed an inch or so in front of the canvas, such as Perforated Seascape #1 (blue) of 1965.  Carefully arranged dots on the canvas underneath are off-kilter from the metal screen dot openings, creating a moiré, Op-art effect. These paintings offer up differing impressions as you move to the right or left, and this is another way Lichtenstein works out movement, and potential multiple views like his Cubist predecessors.

Seldom seen, these optical landscapes show Lichtenstein’s restless search for varied materials to explore common iconography. It is easy to feel you know Lichtenstein’s artwork until you do an inventory of the varied series in this retrospective:

Early Abstractions 1958-60,

Art History 1951-90,

Look Mickey 1961,

Early Pop 1961-63,

Black and White 1961-66,

War and Romance 1961-66,

Brushstrokes 1965-71,

Explosions 1963-68,

Landscapes 1964-71,

Modern 1966-71,

Mirrors 1969-72,

Entablatures 1971-76,

Artist’s Studios 1973-74,

Perfect/Imperfect 1978-95,

Nudes 1994-97,

Landscapes in the Chinese Style 1996-97.

Landscapes in the Chinese Style are among the last works he created; meditative and spare, dot patterns are put to the service of interpreting Song Dynasty landscape masterworks. Finally, a room devoted to his works on paper encompasses all his series. They include studies for major works as well as some of the thirty black and white drawings of banal objects that are fully finished art works.  They include iconic drawings like Alka Seltzer from 1966.  This room is a special jewel showing Lichtenstein’s touch, deft pencil marks and wonderful collages.

For me, among the standouts are the lesser known Art History paintings, especially his Monet’s Haystacks, wonderful to see in light of the fact that the Art Institute of Chicago owns a handsome cache of Monet’s Haystacks and other of Monet’s masterworks. Lichtenstein’s rendition of Laocoon, 1988, an imposing vertical painting is a fabulous interpretation of the famous Greek sculpture.  Here again, as with all of the works in the Art History series, Lichtenstein does not go to the original, but to a reproduction, just as his seminal Look Mickey was taken from a printed source. Laocoon contains a full range of painting strategies; some striped areas are carefully taped in contrast to areas of free, messy brushwork. This painting is not as frequently reproduced which is unfortunate since it is one of Lichtenstein’s finest works.

Reflections on Interior with Girl Drawing, 1990 is one of the best paintings in the exhibition to show Lichtenstein’s full arsenal of pictorial strategies, among many competitors. It is more fully in color that most of Lichtenstein’s paintings. An exceptionally pale yellow cascades over the girl’s right shoulder and a cadmium lemon yellow cascades over her left shoulder and serpentines down the canvas past her right thigh.  The girl herself is Picassoesque in style, wearing a Kelly green smock. The yellow conversations surrounding the girl on the right side of the canvas are balanced by jarring yellow and black stripes inscribing a pulsing red triangle on the left.  The middle of the painting is mostly wide, bold black and white stripes and a wide stripe of Ben-Day dots.  Crossing this abstract banding are diagonal stripes creating a kind of Matisse or Juan Gris still life.  So the entire center of the painting is a semi-abstract X. The entire painting has a framing device of black and white diagonal stripes with notches of pale blue and pale yellow. In this painting, Lichtenstein carries forward his much-used Ben-Day dots, reflections, comic notations, and love of art historical sources, none better than Picasso.  The whole composition is cut up into spatial sections in the Cubist manner. Lichtenstein even uses several wall molding references favored by the Cubists.  The painting is overloaded with jarring diagonals and slipping triangles that a lesser artist simply could not control.  Every inch of this painting creates both necessary tension and balance.  It is jarring and elegant.

This retrospective gives us the complete Lichtenstein that few of us know. Go see it.

Notes

1Art Institute of Chicago Department of Public Affairs Press materials.

2Ibid.

3Sheena Wagstaff (Chief Curator at Tate Modern, London) is the other curator for this retrospective of Roy Lichtenstein.

4Sigmar Polke San Fransisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), p 9.

 

–Cynthia M. Kukla

Responses

  1. Brandy Larson says:

    May 18th, 2012at 11:23 am(#)

    Excellent! I love the samples of his work that you included, but would like to see the last painting you described.

  2. Cynthia Kukla says:

    May 28th, 2012at 11:18 am(#)

    Dear Brandy, with the difficulty of securing approved Lichtenstein images for press use, the Art Institute did not have “Reflections on Interior with Girl Drawing,” based on a Picasso painting. The sites I found give Roy’s version and the original.

  3. Cynthia Kukla says:

    June 9th, 2012at 1:35 pm(#)

    This has a small image of the Lichtenstein painting:

    http://shop.lacma.org/collections/posters-prints/products/lichtenstein-reflections-on-interior-with-girl-drawing

    This is the Picasso original:

    http://www.google.com/images?client=safari&rls=en&q=picasso%20girl%20drawing&oe=UTF-8&hl=en&sa=X&oi=image_result_group

  4. S Brantingham says:

    March 2nd, 2013at 12:40 pm(#)

    A terrific overview of the artist and the exhibition. Thanks for the education on his influences and techniques. I enjoy your critiques of art galleries and their exhibitions; they add to my general knowledge of the art world and its history.

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