Roy Lichtenstein. The painter’s name is linked to his iconic comic book images of women, their thoughts rising in text bubbles above tentacles of tousled hair, mounds of tears streaming from their eyes. In 1993, a very successful retrospective of Lichtenstein at the Guggenheim, with some 200 pieces, sealed the reputation of the painter as the first instigator of Pop art. This week, another major Lichtenstein exhibition (“Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective”) arrives at the National Gallery, fresh from the Chicago Art Institute where it opened earlier this year, with a slightly different take. In the 15,000 square feet the National Gallery has dedicated to the exhibition, the women of 1960s comics occupy exactly one room.
Lichtenstein (1923-1997) was so prolific that there are many ways to slice and dice his output. (It is remarkable that there is relatively little overlap between the Guggenheim exhibition and the 135 works on display at the National Gallery.) His signature style, of course, has remained constant since the early 1960s, when he began exploring mass media conventions for rendering three-dimensional objects, with tricolor printing and Benday dot screens. He started with images pulled from phone books, newspaper ads and comic strips – a golf ball, a spray can, Mickey Mouse – and over the years he expanded his lineup of recognizable cultural icons. to include canonical works of art history: still lifes by Matisse, nudes by Picasso, Chinese landscapes. All were part of an ongoing exploration of how objects are rendered in two dimensions and how images become iconic or meaningless, or both, when processed through a mainstream filter. And most resorted at least in places to brand points.
But the dots were less depersonalizing than you first thought. A common misunderstanding about Pop art and the work of Lichtenstein is that because the painter adopted the language of mechanical reproduction, his works are themselves essentially mass-producible. I certainly embraced that view after seeing the 1990s retrospective.
The National Gallery exhibition, however, by going beyond the stereotypical image of Lichtenstein, shows that the painter was in many ways a traditionalist: his paintings are old-fashioned representations in paint, on canvas, with a physicality that cannot be fully communicated. in reproductions. Even the dots have a presence (as a catalog essay by Harry Cooper, curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery, illuminates). The first three works you see when you enter the exhibition emphasize this physicality, from the painterly surface of the ceiling in “Artist’s Studio ‘Look Mickey'” (1973) to the textured and lightly striped silver panel in “Entablature” (1975 ) to the lively corporeality of “Galatea” (1990), a three-dimensional sculpture cutting through the artist’s sensual black lines in the air of the gallery.
Lichtenstein’s work is not just about reproduction conventions like print screens and dots; it is about the artistic representation of these conventions. And what drives it is not just its inherent social critique, but the tension between the individuality of the painter’s hand and eye and the impersonality of what he uses them to illustrate. That tension runs through the whole show, and it’s what made it such a delight, even an eye-opener.
It’s always fun to have a show that makes you reassess an artist you thought you knew. After the 1993 retrospective, I came away with the feeling that Lichtenstein had had a burst of fertility in the 1960s and had ended up repeating himself or looking in vain for a way to regain that initial energy. The current show, on the other hand, shows him throwing a huge bag of stuff on the table in the 60s and continuing to play with them, examining them and following them ever further towards new solutions, for the rest of his life. life.
The biggest “stuff” involved the subject matter and style of comics entering the work in 1961 with a bang and the piece “Look, Mickey”. Nothing is quite what it seems in a painting of Lichtenstein, and this image of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck turns out to have been quoted not from a comic strip, but from a book illustration for children: Lichtenstein actually took it from a more painterly idiom to a comic book one, with a tricolor “print” and an uneven grid of red dots on Mickey’s face applied with a dog grooming brush. “Look, Mickey” also leaves, in the underlying pencil sketches, traces of the human hand involved in creating this supposedly mechanical image and subtly modifying it from its original form – something Lichtenstein did in all his comic-based work.
Indeed, the dots tend to divert attention from Lichtenstein’s concern for composition. The artist loved a central focus, often punching (figurative) holes in the middle of his canvas, whether it was the empty space in the middle of “The Ring” (1962), graphic explosions in depictions of comic book war (with onomatopoeic sound effects: “WHAM!” “BRATATAT!”), or the joined lips of two lovers in “We Rose Up Slowly”, united in a single ovoid shape evoking the sexual organs of a woman , right in the center of the canvas, while around them white bubbles create additional “holes”.
In a 1972 “Still Life with Glass and Peeled Lemon”, an homage to a traditional genre, the “hole” is the lemon, its peel removed to reveal a white void. This sits atop an array of ironic surfaces: a wineglass, smoothly refracting bits of color that surround it; a plate, with dots marking the conventions of representation of reflection which so fascinated Lichtenstein that he made several series of “Mirrors” (and which came to the fore in his masterful “Reflections on” Interior with Girl’s Drawing “” from 1990 – a very intended pun on “reflections”). On the left – where many of Lichtenstein’s canvases have an exit or a door – these overlapping surfaces give way to an impassive background square, a surface of unbroken painting so devoid of air that it is more impenetrable than any of the objects at the center of the painting.
In a few later works, the focal point becomes a figurative explosion: a burst of flowers on a table in “Interior With Nude Leaving” (1997); a bird on a tree in “Yellow Cliffs” (1996), both executed in sponge paint in a vivid sherbet orange that became a frequent accent color pop as the artist’s palette s widened.
The humor and self-referentiality can get a little sickening. Lichtenstein, it sometimes seems, can do nothing without quotation marks around him; he cannot even paint a brushstroke, only a “brushstroke” (the first of which, in 1965, was taken from a comic strip), and even when experimenting in later works with real streaks of paint, he applies them with a rag, not a brush. In a work that constantly flirts with self-effacement and specializes in personality, it’s no surprise to see a “self-portrait” in the form of one of Lichtenstein’s ubiquitous empty mirrors on a t-shirt, or to see that the hand of an Artist from one of the Artist’s Studio series from the mid-1970s draws a drawing of Matisse, deliberately leaving open the question of which artist it is.
Moreover, when Lichtenstein had an idea, he came back to it again and again, and although all the resulting series make him a curator’s dream – the thematic arrangement is done from the start – not all of them are so convincing. I understand the idea behind the dull, ugly surfaces of “Perfect” and “Imperfect” abstract paintings, with jagged shapes contained within the boundaries of the canvas or extending beyond the edges into odd triangles and corners. They represent one extreme of Lichtenstein’s constant exploration of ways to remove meaning from images in his paintings. I just don’t find them interesting to watch more than once.
One of the advantages of the current retrospective over the previous one is that it can show the late work of the artist: the two rooms of paintings made after 1993 are the most convincing of the exhibition. In his “Nudes,” from 1994, his cartoon women gain bodies and a whole new dimension to their nerdy latent sexuality. We have the same faces, the same points, the same conventions – women’s nipples resemble the slopes of the “golf ball” of 1962, another two-dimensional representation of a rounded surface. But as the artist shows in “Nude With Bust”, the addition of the body creates an important distinction. When the head with the red lips is represented from the shoulders, on a pedestal, it is art. When it’s on top of a full body with perky tits, it’s cheesecake. Where is it?
My favorite is “Two Nudes”, which revisits a common theme in art history of two women, one nude, in an ambiguous relationship. The horizontal woman, breasts exposed, lies on her back and is showered with dots like a modern-day Danae, with a single orange stripe descending across the canvas to reinforce the golden metaphor and the puddle on the floor below her. The vertical, already strewn with dots and visible only in the form of a (desexualized) bust, leaves the painting or pushes us away from it, we spectators – the antithesis of the inviting servant in Manet’s “Olympia”, the one of many backgrounds on the art/cheesecake spectrum. With this work, Lichtenstein moves away from the simple quotation of tradition to finally allow himself to join it.
Lichtenstein died suddenly of pneumonia at age 73, in the midst of a particularly fertile period. His Chinese landscapes, painted in the last two years of his life, may not be a “late style” per se, but are certainly a departure: dots are graded into various sizes to form hazy, poetic evocations of traditional Chinese painting, with the occasional small, cartoon-like figure intruding like “Where’s Waldo?” The late nudes are perhaps more fruitful, but these works form a beautiful coda.
Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective
is on view at the East Building of the National Gallery of Art until January 6. On the Fourth Street NW Mall. 202-737-4215. www.nga.gov.