Roy Lichtenstein: Top of the Pop
BY MARGARET HAWKINS For Sun-Times Media May 17, 2012 11:50AM
"Oh, Jeff...I Love You, Too...But…" by Roy Lichtenstein, 1964. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
‘ROY LICHTENSTEIN: A RETROSPECTIVE’
♦ to Sept. 3
♦ Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan
♦ Tickets, $12-$18
♦ (312) 443-3626
Updated: June 5, 2012 11:52AM
Andy Warhol famously said, “I like boring things.” Roy Lichtenstein, the world’s second most famous Pop artist but arguably the better one, painted boring things.
He did it in a way that made the whole world notice, and therein lies the paradox of Pop — boring subject, riveting art.
On Wednesday, “Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective” opened at the Art Institute of Chicago. The show is the first comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s work since his death in 1997, and its international scope confirms Lichtenstein’s place in 20th century art. Organized jointly by the Art Institute and the Tate Modern, in London, and curated by James Rondeau and Sheena Wagstaff, of those two museums, respectively, the exhibition begins in Chicago but after that will travel to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Tate Modern and, finally, the Centre Pompidou in Paris in the fall of 2013.
Rondeau and Wagstaff put the show together over a period of five years. They worked closely with Lichtenstein’s widow, Dorothy, and with the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, in New York, which operates out of the artist’s home and studio in Manhattan’s West Village.
The curators began by reviewing nearly 2,000 documented works produced by Lichtenstein during a career that spanned almost 60 years. From that they narrowed the show down to a relatively spare selection of 130 paintings and about 30 additional objects, including drawings and even some sculpture.
“We tried to select the very best work from each moment in the career,” said Rondeau. He pointed out that while a good selection of Lichtenstein’s most famous work, his comic strip-based paintings, will be in the show, they represent only a small portion of the artist’s career and are not the exclusive focus of the exhibition.
Still, ask the man on the street, or even the woman at the museum, about Roy Lichtenstein and nine times out of 10 you’ll get, “The comic strip guy? I love that stuff!”
“It’s not necessarily his best work,” said Rondeau, though he acknowledges the phenomenal place these paintings hold in the public imagination.
“They have the icy cool of sacred icons,” he said, attempting to explain their almost universal appeal. “They are defining images of our time. But Roy was so much more beyond the sensationalism of those early paintings.”
Lichtenstein was 40 years old and already an established artist when he suddenly became famous for painting huge, made-up comic strips, and after that he went on to do much else.
“After 1966, he applied that same style to a wide range of subject matter,” Rondeau said. “Using the same building blocks — heavy black outline, handpainted Ben-day dots — that language persists throughout his career. The style takes on a life of its own.”
The style is Lichtenstein’s painterly interpretation of mechanical printing, which it imitates so precisely as to be mistaken for it. In these often enormous, sometimes deceptive inventions, glamorous-looking girls speak and think their vacuous thoughts in big bubbles, and it’s all larger than life.
The monumentality of these works — in contrast to the three-inch newspaper strips that inspired them — lends much to their seeming significance, despite glaringly and intentionally trivial plot lines.
Five-foot-tall “M-Maybe” shows the head of a beautiful and perturbed looking blond whose thought bubble says, “M-Maybe he became ill and couldn’t leave the studio!” The head of the girl in “Drowning Girl” (“I Don’t Care! I’d rather sink than call Brad for help!”) is nearly six feet tall.
Lichtenstein used that contrast to subtle effect, playing with the public’s belief that comic art, and anything painted in that style, was lowbrow and trivial. The work forced viewers to rethink their assumptions, even while Lichtenstein claimed his work was not about ideas.
Jack Cowart, executive director of the Lichtenstein Foundation, warns viewers not to take this claim, or the apparent simplicity of Lichtenstein’s paintings, at face value. “Roy said his work was meant to be blank, and not about ideas, but his work was very complicated,” he said. “The paintings are loaded with symbolism, irony, parody, and a synthesis of human emotions.
“Roy was trying to make it look ‘dumb.’ It allowed him to hide his thought and his process behind this perfect surface.” Cowart described Lichtenstein as a consummate craftsman and explained how painstaking he was in painting the irregular dots “to get them just perfect.” Likewise with the campy text he used.
“It was very crafted,” Cowart said. “Sometimes he invented it, sometimes he found it and changed it.”
The ability of this style to reframe elements of commonplace visual culture through an aesthetic lens, all the while connecting it to something that feels so familiar it might be a personal memory, may be why this stage of the artist’s work is so wide-reaching in influence. One recent and particularly far-reaching sign is the inclusion of Michael Clark’s Lichtenstein-inspired projection designs for the musical “Jersey Boys.” The images are integral to the hugely successful show, which tells the story of the 1960s band the Four Seasons. They quote Lichtenstein’s style openly and are used to set scenes, summarize emotions and move the action along quickly, using text that comes directly from Four Seasons songs (“Walk Like a Man,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry”).
This Lichtenstein-izing of pop music works surprisingly well. In both cases, awkward or painful emotions are made huge — if to opposite effect — in this case by music that was being written at exactly the same time as Lichtenstein was making his iconic paintings. The heartfelt song lyrics, like the sentiments expressed in Lichtenstein paintings (though his are mostly voiced by distraught girls) are no less painful for being utterly banal.
Like Warhol, Lichtenstein was all about exploring and exploiting the newly accessible world of mass reproduction for the purposes of high art. “He knew that the eye can sometimes tell the mind what to think, and he enjoyed that tension,” Cowart said, noting that Lichtenstein had an engineering background and a keen interest in science. “He believed in the science of vision, and he probably read Scientific American more than he read Art Forum.”
“He’s giving you something you don’t think you’re getting,” Cowart said, explaining the layered satisfaction of looking at Lichtenstein paintings, the way at first they seem beautiful and deliciously trivial but then gain traction in the intellect over time.
Exactly what Lichtenstein is giving the viewer is the subject of much scholarly analysis in the 300-plus-page catalog that accompanies the exhibition.
The work speaks for itself, too, and the “dumb” objects may speak most clearly. Some of the “boring” objects Lichtenstein makes fascinating: coffee cups, washing machines, step-on garbage cans, spray cans, hot dogs, engagement rings, six-foot-tall tires, golf balls, a ball of twine, a composition book.
Comparisons to Warhol are inevitable, both professionally and personally. “They were polar opposites,” according to Rondeau. “They shared a pop sensibility, the embrace of the commonplace and the cliched,” he says, but Lichtenstein “was not invested in boredom in the same provocative way that Warhol was.”
Cowart, who knew both men, agrees. Warhol’s celebrity and public persona were integral to his art, he says, while “Roy was more classical than Andy. He was an easel painter and he had a more reticent personality. He liked to stay in the studio and work.”
Work, he did.
Cowart described his routine. He lived “above the shop” and went to work downstairs every morning and out to lunch with his studio staff at 1 p.m., then back to work until dinner and later continued to draw through the evening. His Manhattan studio — he had two, the other on Long Island — was a large and airy light manufacturing space with 14-foot ceilings and big windows that he acquired in the late ’80s and stripped back to bare floors.
After a brief few years making the paintings he’s most famous for, Lichtenstein moved on. Later work included his brushstroke paintings — absolutely flat paintings that resemble textured brushstrokes, and graphic representations of landscape, sometimes painted, sometimes collaged, but always composed of dots.
From the 1970s on, Lichtenstein riffed on art history. In paintings based on the work of Monet, Matisse, Mondrian, Picasso, Brancusi and De Kooning, he continued to challenge assumptions about low and high art, while his paintings of blank mirrors reinterpreted the notion of self-portraiture.
But it was at the very end of his life, both Rondeau and Cowart agree, when Lichtenstein was still painting full force, that he was possibly making his best work.
“He returned to the brushstroke for the first time in 50 years,” Rondeau said of this late work. “The exhibition is meant to show the arc of his career and it does. He started with the expressive use of paint and went back to it at the end.”