During an age of sound bites, 24/7 news cycles, and social media such as Face Book and Twitter, Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s reputation has been frozen in time. Lichtenstein (1923-1997) remained a perennial forty year old who’d blazed his way into art history books in 1961 with a painting based on a cartoon of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse fishing off a dock. Though the born and bred New Yorker worked with a wide range of subjects and media for another thirty-five or so years–he died of complications from pneumonia in 1997—he continued to be identified with close-ups of blue-eyed blondes seeking romance and their counterparts, dashing war heroes, who the artist rendered in primary colors, the sort of dots used in mechanical reproductions, and word balloons. artes fine arts magazine
Mixed in among the familiar are canvases seldom ever exhibited, much less reproduced. One surprise follows another. You’ll find objects rendered in black and white; large, generic Abstract Expressionist brushstrokes; expansive sunrises and sunsets; canvases inspired by well-known works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, Claude Monet, and Salvador Dali; light-reflecting mirrors; classical entablatures; and room-sized renderings of an artist’s studio, presumably Lichtenstein’s own. At the time of his death, he was occupied with two series of paintings that are among his most indelible: huge nude women frolicking on a beach or coquettishly posed indoors as well as landscapes in the Chinese style. These two bodies of work are so remarkable, you leave the last two galleries of this exhibition on a high.
Like other artists born during the nineteen twenties and thirties, Roy Lichtenstein wasn’t an overnight sensation. Nor did his career proceed in a straight forward manner.
On his journey back to NYC, there were many detours. After distinguished service in the infantry during WWII–at one point, he drew maps in an intelligence section–he returned to Columbus to finish college. There, he met some success as a fledgling artist by winning awards at the Ohio State Fair. A woodcut garnered a first prize in 1950; a sculpture earned another first in 1951. Later, there were teaching gigs in Oswego, New York and in New Brunswick, New Jersey. .
Lichtenstein was nearly forty when he began consigning works without any expressionism in them, as he once put it, to the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1961. Shortly before that, he’d been executing modestly-sized, colored ribbon-like abstractions. Three from 1959-60 on view at the Art Institute could not be more different from the compelling, representational works he created a year or two later.
After portraying Walt Disney’s beloved Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse clothed in red and blue against a yellow sky and dock, Lichtenstein spent the next few year depicting household objects he carefully chose. He executed a cup of steaming coffee, a churning, top-loading washing machine, a pair of cherished Keds, even a portable radio in the form of a shaped canvas. As for activities around the home, he limned a manicured hand cleaning a flat surface with a sponge and another releasing spray from an aerosol can.
Many works from this series offer witty subtexts. For example, a hand slathering yellow butter on bread evokes an artist applying thick paint with a spatula. And versions of standardized, student notebooks are a cross between good “compositions” and Jackson Pollock’s poured paintings.
To execute this series of low key paintings, Lichtenstein increased the dimensions of his canvases as well as the scale of what he depicted; reduced the colors of his palette to red, yellow, and blue or just plain black and white; and introduced broad areas of bare canvas. In other words, he coupled Pop subjects with a Minimalist sensibility. Surprisingly, considering the vast literature devoted to the artist’s use of Ben Day dots, including the wonderful essay by Harry Cooper in the exhibition’s must-have catalogue, many of these works–and others in this retrospective–are dot free.
While painting these canvases, probably the most subdued he ever made, Lichtenstein began executing the brash, bright, exuberant canvases inspired by romance and war comics that brought him fame. If the gallery displaying these classics were a Food Network show, you’d hear a chorus of Bams! in the background. As it is, you face a 25-foot-long picture from 1963 of a fighter pilot hitting his target with a resounding WHAAM!
At a time when non-representational painting held sway in the USA, Lichtenstein transformed graphic heroes and heroines into dramatic images as vigorous as any found in Abstract Expressionist paintings. When I interviewed him for Art News in 1974, he explained, “I had the idea of taking a single frame out of something that implied a story. To ascribe all this emotion to the subject makes her even more real.”
In this beguiling series, Lichtenstein worked with blown up faces; broad areas of primary colors; words that tell you how to feel (“…this painting is a masterpiece.”); and diptych and triptych formats that offer narratives that never could be confused with religious instruction. He also made you believe Ben Day dots were the hottest innovation in avant-garde circles in ages. Nevertheless, elsewhere in the Art Institute, take a look at Seurat’s pointillist bedecked Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte or Picasso’s Portrait of Kahnweiler with its short, staccato-like brushstrokes and you’ll see how the American Pop art pioneer extended a tradition rather than upending it.
In Chicago, where so many series have been brought together, you discover that the artist matched each subject with a unique mood or sensation. Take the gallery featuring the Explosions of 1963-68. You’re quite literally blown away by visual pyrotechnics. Or, the space filled with radiant landscapes from 1964-67. You’re not standing on the ground or the deck of a boat enjoying these awesome sunrises and sunsets. Lichtenstein puts you in the sky above. Then, there’s the room with the Perfect/Imperfect canvases of 1978-89. The perfects aren’t as interesting as their opposites. At the Art Institute, the Imperfect pictures best their so-called betters.
As for the vast gallery filled with art about art, it’s a mini-museum unto itself. There’s enough material here to fill several Ph.D dissertations. For starters, you can compare Lichtenstein’s takes on Claude Monet’s Haystacks, non-objective abstractions by Mondrian, and the Sleeping Muse of Constantine Brancusi with the originals elsewhere in the Art Institute. Brancusi works with volume; the American, with outline. Monet’s paintings are caked with paint; Lichtenstein’s oil and magna dots practically soak into his canvas surfaces.
Not every work in this section of the show is successful, and co-curators James Rondeau of the Art Institute and Sheena Wagstaff for the Tate Modern must be commended for including a few of the artist’s lesser works. The Pop pioneer’s shrunken version of a Morris Louis color painting could not be more ho hum.
Sometimes Lichtenstein’s references were rather sly. For example, his two glazed ceramic heads from 1965 and 1966 are clearly inspired by Picasso’s Glass of Absinthe bronzes. And he seems to have been as willing to alter his own work the way he treated source material. When he later included his breakthrough picture of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse on the wall of one of his artist’s studios, he recolored Donald’s shirt.
In the last years of his life, Lichtenstein was still rethinking the conventions of art. About his late nudes from 1994-97, the artist noted, “It’s kind of amusing that you…leave the clothes off and it means something different. It’s more riveting.” When gallery goers stand in front of his giant-sized women, the real life, clothed folk are transformed into Lilliputians. Even the landscapes in the Chinese style from 1996-97 project their own special characteristics. They’re everything his most famous works are not: delicate, nuanced, quietly poetic.
Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective takes plenty of time to see. You’ll find yourself constantly pausing, pondering, and savoring almost every painting, sculpture, and work on paper on view. Only time will tell if Lichtenstein will enter the pantheon where the great artists of the distant and near past whom he revered sit. This monographic survey suggests that this will occur sooner rather than later.
By Phyllis Tuchman, Contributing Writer
Phyllis Tuchman has written on art and artists for several on-line sites, including artnet, obit-mag, and Bloomberg/muse.
Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective is on view until September 3, 2012. Visit the museum site at: http://www.artic.edu/aic//
Image 1- Roy Lichtenstein, Masterpiece, 1962. Oil on canvas. 137.2 x 137.2 cm (54 x 54 in). © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. Agnes Gund Collection, New York.
Image 2- Roy Lichtenstein, Untitled, 1959. Oil on canvas. 86.5 x 71.3 cm (34.0625 x 28.0625 in). © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. Private Collection.
Image 3- Roy Lichtenstein, Look Mickey, 1961. Oil on canvas. 121.9 x 175.3 cm (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.
Image 4- Roy Lichtenstein, Oh, Jeff…I Love You, Too…But…, 1964. Oil and Magna on canvas. 121.9 x 121.9 cm (48 x 48 in). © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. Collection Simonyi.
Image 5- Roy Lichtenstein, Whaam!, 1963. Magna and oil on canvas. 172.7 x 406.4 cm (68 x 160 in). © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. Tate: Purchased 1966. Photo ©Tate, 2011.
Image 6- Roy Lichtenstein, Landscape in Fog, 1996. Oil and Magna on canvas. 180.3 x 207.6 cm (71 x 81.75 in). © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. Private Collection.
Image 7- Roy Lichtenstein, Wall Explosion II, 1965. Porcelain enamel on steel 170.2 x 188 cm x 10.2 cm (67 x 74 in). © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. Tate: Purchased 1980. Photo ©Tate, 2011
Image 8- Roy Lichtenstein, Haystacks, 1969. Oil and Magna on canvas. 40.6 x 61 cm (16 x 24 in). © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. The Ruben Family.
Image 9- Roy Lichtenstein, Nude with Street Scene, 1995. Oil on Magna on canvas. 121.9 x 171.5 cm (48 x 67 1/2 in). © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. Collection Simonyi.