Published: November 6, 2012
In the 1960s, while critics and the public were still digesting Abstract Expressionism, a new direction appeared on the American art horizon: Pop Art. Rebelling against the expressive feelings and nonrepresentational nature of the art of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, leaders of the new movement †Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein †focused on the figurative and clarity.
Along with Warhol, Lichtenstein (1923‱997) became the Master of Pop Art, defining, redefining and eventually revolutionizing that quintessentially Twentieth Century American art form. With ingenuity, wit, subjects from popular culture and art history and technical innovation, Lichtenstein created signature styles that significantly influenced the course of contemporary art.
“Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective,” on view at the National Gallery of Art through January 13, comprises more than 100 of the artist’s paintings, related drawings and sculpture. Organized by curators James Rondeau of the Art Institute of Chicago and Sheena Wagstaff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with Harry Cooper of the National Gallery as in-house curator, the exhibition has already been seen at the Art Institute of Chicago.
On view are Lichtenstein’s early Pop paintings drawn from advertisements and comic book treatments of romance and war, takeoffs on art by modern masters and series, including “Brushstrokes,” “Mirrors,” “Nudes” and Chinese landscapes. Works are arranged chronologically and thematically, allowing full exposure of the artist’s prolific variety and output.
“With his unique combination of technical invention, deadpan humor and cultural daring, Roy Lichtenstein moved the line between commercial and fine art and changed the way we look at the world. It is impossible to imagine contemporary art without his signature dots,” said gallery director Earl A. Powell III. Added Douglas Druick, director of the Art Institute, and Chris Dercon, director of Tate Modern, “The art of Roy Lichtenstein fundamentally altered the possibilities of painting in the second half of the Twentieth Century&”
Lichtenstein was raised in Manhattan by his father, a real estate broker, and mother, a pianist and homemaker. Following a summer studying painting with Reginald Marsh, he enrolled at Ohio State University, from which he graduated, with two years out for Army service, in 1946. His classes with Hoyt Sherman, who stressed rigorous theories concerning figure-ground relationships, influenced Lichtenstein’s transformations of everyday subjects, as well as his predilection for making Pop versions of paintings by the likes of Pablo Picasso.
Early on, Lichtenstein fell under the sway of Picasso, whom he regarded as “the greatest artist of the Twentieth Century by far,” and who influenced his art throughout his career.
After several more years studying and teaching at Ohio State, Lichtenstein spent six years in Cleveland, working intermittently at a variety of jobs. Whenever possible, he created sculpture, ceramics, woodcuts, screen prints and lithographs, as well as oils and pastels, depicting subjects ranging from musicians to Americana. Frequent trips to New York kept him abreast of developments in contemporary art.
During teaching stints at State University of New York at Oswego and Douglass College of Rutgers University, Lichtenstein’s work began to draw attention at various gallery exhibitions. In the late 1950s, he painted in the predominant manner of the day, Abstract Expressionism, canvases with pleasingly colorful blocks reminiscent of the work of Hans Hofmann.
Lichtenstein soon abandoned his excursion into abstraction to adopt comic book and cartoon figures, including dialogue, as subjects for paintings. His big breakthrough, “Look Mickey,” 1961, based on a wash drawing in one of his children’s books, shows Mickey Mouse blushing with amusement as his fishing pal, Donald Duck, yells that he has “hooked a BIG one,” when in fact he has hooked himself. To enhance the illusion of accuracy, Lichtenstein replicated in paint the commercial printing process of employing dots to mix primary colors and adjust tonal values. Moreover, his figures are strong, the primary colors alluring and the composition visibly humorous.
“Mickey” (now in the National Gallery’s collection) and similar works created a sensation when first displayed in 1962 at Leo Castelli’s New York gallery. As art historian Robert Rosenblum recalled, “For most of the world, Lichtenstein was born at the Leo Castelli Gallery &†at an exhibition that dumbfounded with horror or delight everybody who saw it and that can still jolt the memory.”
By all accounts, Lichtenstein was a modest, reticent, soft-spoken, witty, tongue-in-cheek kind of person. Cooper says that even after he achieved great fame and fortune, Lichtenstein remained humble; he “never put on airs.”
In other early Pop paintings, like “Keds,” “The Ring” and “Hot Dog,” “Lichtenstein featured an entirely new style, mimicking the compositional techniques of comics and advertisements: a palette of primary colors, flat backgrounds, heavy black lines for outlining and dots that artificially simulated shadows and tonalities,” writes Tate Modern curator Iria Candela in her catalog essay.
By incorporating industrial and mechanical forms of representation into his new-found style, Lichtenstein was able to paint a variety of subjects, from comic superheroes to distressed young women to daring young men featured in war and romance comics. In the early 1960s, he shot to international fame with vividly colored, cartoonish depictions of vulnerable young women professing undying love while drowning or talking on the phone. They contrasted with macho scenes of the violence of war, bearing such titles as “Whaam” and “As I Opened Fire.” The artist was clearly intrigued with the contrast between the emotional intensity of stories of sentimental young romance and stereotypical depictions of men at war and his own deadpan, mechanical style.
Soon after his Pop Art breakthrough, Lichtenstein experimented with a series of paintings devoid of vivid color or narrative †large black and white works depicting ordinary, everyday objects, including an Alka Seltzer, automobile tire, ball of twine, golf ball, magnifying glass, portable radio and a student composition book. Each floats in space, magnified and precisely drawn. By this time, the early 1960s, the artist had transitioned to machine-made, perforated metal screens through which he painted his trademark dots.
He also found that halftone dots in images pared down to essentials lent themselves to landscapes, which ranged from blending swirling paint and/or dots in semiabstract seascapes and bright, representational works like “Sunrise.”
In the late 1960s Lichtenstein riffed on the motif of the brushstroke in works like “Little Big Painting” and “Brushstrokes,” each featuring massive, dripping brushwork. They are ironic commentaries on the significance of Jackson Pollock and drip painting and the gestural brushstroke of Abstract Expressionism, which he had abandoned early in his career.
Lichtenstein relished pilfering images from various Modernist movements and creating ersatz versions of them. Around the late 1960s he began a series that parodied Art Deco †which he dismissively described as “Cubism for the Home”n works that recreated decorative motifs of the era, such as geometric reliefs and ornamentation. “Modern Sculpture with Velvet Rope” carried this idea into three-dimensional form.
Lichtenstein recognized early on that his practice of working off existing images could be employed to create versions of past masterworks. His first art history appropriation, a takeoff on Emanuel Leutze’s iconic “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” 1951, evokes but hardly mimics the original. He took on Picasso in “Femme d’Alger,” making the master’s 1955 painting brighter in color, crisper in brushwork and filled with dots. Lichtenstein’s dots worked well with his version of Claude Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series. Likewise, his Mondrian-like image, “Non-Objective I,” comes close to emulating the original, except that “its static composition conveys the feel of a rote, paint-by-the numbers modernism,” in the words of art professor Sara Doris. The artist also applied his comic style to works by Brancusi, Matisse and van Gogh, but never Seurat, perhaps because the Frenchman’s style was too close to his own.
In another bow to art history, particularly the work of Jan van Eyck, Diego Velazquez and Picasso, between 1969‱972 Lichtenstein undertook a series of 50 paintings featuring mirrors. They appeared in all shapes and sizes in solo images, as well as with nudes and in studio paintings. In his 1978 “Self-Portrait,” a rectangular mirror hangs in place of his head atop a T-shirt.
Inspired by Matisse’s portrayals of his own studio early in the Twentieth Century, Lichtenstein undertook a series on artist’s studios, within which he showcased examples of his own work and that of others. In four monumental canvases †standing 8 feet tall and almost 11 feet wide †”Lichtenstein presents the studio not as a working environment, but as an assertion of artistic identity,” says art critic/historian James Lawrence. The artist used well-placed stripes rather than dots in this series.
“Artist’s Studio ‘Look Mickey,'” stars the artist’s Walt Disney characters, but is also replete with symbolic references to Matisse and other Lichtenstein paintings.
In a departure from his other work, Lichtenstein late in his career created a series of chaste, decorative female nudes. Rather than working from live models, he based his images on Picasso’s 1928 beach series, Matisse’s odalisques and comic book clippings. Several of Lichtenstein’s paintings, like “Nudes with Beach Ball,” drew inspiration from Picasso, while “Still Life with Reclining Nude (Study)” was influenced by Matisse nudes.
Lichtenstein’s longtime fascination with sky, water and light, and viewing monotype and pastel landscapes by Edgar Degas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1990s, led to a late career series of landscapes in the Chinese style. Employing dots and painted portions in a style far removed from his comics-inspired images, he created evocative, misty panoramas.
In spite of the often whimsical, humorous, comics-inspired motifs in his work, Lichtenstein was a dedicated professional “who wanted to be taken seriously,” says Cooper. He ran the danger, with his seemingly light-hearted style, of becoming a joke, whereas his genius was his ability to apply his own visual vocabulary to so many different subjects.
Because his approach was so different from the Abstract Expressionists and even his fellow Pop artists and because of the apparently trivial way in which he made art, Lichtenstein was a subject of controversy throughout his career. In a 1964 Life magazine pictorial “he was portrayed as an anti-Pollock, his mechanical style of reproducing his comic book sources implicitly contrasted with Pollock’s frenzied creativity,” Doris observes. Indeed, the Life spread about Lichtenstein was titled, “Is He the Worst Artist in the US?,” a deliberate inversion of the 1949 Life article, “Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?”
Fifteen years after his death, Lichtenstein is still controversial in some circles. This eye-popping exhibition, colorful, imaginative, attuned to art history but founded on Lichtenstein’s individual vision, should help solidify his high standing.
Is he an important artist? “Absolutely,” responds Cooper, “especially among the postwar American artists. He’s one of the top ten artists of the Twentieth Century,” he concludes.
The exhibition travels to Tate Modern, London (February 21⁍ay 27) and Centre Pompidou, Paris (July 3⁎ovember 4).
The 368-page catalog, with perceptive essays on the artist’s oeuvre, contains a comprehensive chronology. Published by the Art Institute of Chicago and Tate Modern and distributed by Yale University Press, it sells for $65, hardcover and $45, softcover.
The National Gallery is at Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. For information, 202-737-4215 or www.nga.gov .
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm