Saturday, December 1, 2012

Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through January 13, 2013

Roy Lichtenstein defined, refined and blew pop art wide open during the course of his career.  This first retrospective since his death in the late 1990s covers the major periods of his artistic life which were many and varied.  There's more to Lichtenstein than his cartoons of desperate women.

In 1961, he came up with the idea of making art that imitated comic books, which was quite controversial at the time.  Unlike Andy Warhol, however, he left alone the darker side of American pop culture, preferring to concentrate his efforts on lighter fare, although there is certainly melancholy in his works, as his desperate women demonstrate.

His work, "Look Mickey," pictured above, changed the course of his career, where before he had dabbled in abstract expressionism, from then on, he stuck with his dots and comic book style.  How did he get that dot effect?  It turns out he dipped a dog brush in paint.  This work is part of the first section of the show, "Early Pop."  The second section is "Black & White.  Lichtenstein discovered that when you remove color from a painting, the subject can be harder to identify.  Fan of color that I am, this was not my favorite part of the show.

From there, we move on to "Romance."  This is the Lichtenstein with which I was most familiar - those unhappy women, crying over their faithless boyfriends.  They could be illustrations for a Dorothy Parker short story.  The DC Comics series, "Girls' Romances" and "Secret Hearts" were the sources for these melodramatic works.

At this point in the show, you walk up a flight of stairs (a very narrow, circular staircase that I always take slowly, so as not to fall) to see the fourth section, "Brushstrokes."  Apparently, Lichtenstein had great trouble with brushstrokes, so he decided to make them in a cartoon style.  The most interesting item in this section is a chair and ottoman made of wood, in the style of his brushstroke work.   I was not expecting to see furniture!  The "War" section is just what you think it is - cartoon paintings of war comics.  I confess I didn't realize there were such things, but the basis of his work is the "All-American Men of War" series, again by DC Comics.  His piece "Whaam!" is placed next to a small reproduction of the same scene from the comic.  Lichtenstein's work is more immediate - you feel as if you're in the airplane, blasting the enemy fighter to bits.  Of course, part of this is due to size, but there's an energy in his work that's undeniable.

After "War," we go to "Landscapes," and a lovely respite they are too.  There's an energy in these works as well, but it's not so frantic as the war pieces.  "Sea Shore" was my favorite of this group.  It features lovely blues and has a layered feel to it - very restful after the violence of the previous works.

If you've not gathered this already, this is an enormous show - to do this in a lunch hour, I had to practically run through the rooms.  This is the point at which most of the two-level shows at the National Gallery end.  We've got lots more to see, however, so we move on to other rooms on this upper level.  "Modern" is his take on Art Deco.  Lichtenstein didn't care for it (sacrilege in my view), so he stripped it of its architectural context in order to expose its absurdities. I liked his pieces in the Art Deco style, which brings up an interesting point.  If he's making these works to mock Art Deco, and I like the style and his pieces which remind me of it, am I not missing the point?  Shouldn't I dislike them?  I'll need to give this greater thought, but it gave me pause.

Next up is "Art History," his take on great artists.  He explained that he wasn't denigrating them, but instead imitating only the artists he truly admired.  Among the pieces is  a painting of the Matisse work with the goldfish that I recognized right off.  Also there are several Rouen Cathedrals, a la Monet.  I liked these - you could see the old master and the Lichtenstein both in each piece.

The works called "The Artist's Studio" have not been displayed in one show since their 1974 debut, but they're all together now.  Three of them are in this room, and one is at the entrance to the show, so keep it in mind for when you arrive here. I wasn't exactly sure what I was looking at when I entered, but now I see that they're meant to be paintings of a particular artist's workplace.  The next section is "Mirrors."  At one point, he became obsessed with them.  They are merely paintings of mirrors, so there is no reflection, no depth to them.  There is a thought that this serves as commentary on his work - mere pop offerings with no great artistic merit.  Regardless, they're well done.

Now we move on to "Perfect/Imperfect," the only abstract art in the show.  They depict nothing at all, except geometric shapes.  Lichtenstein said they could serve as art on the walls of a sitcom set.  It made me realize I don't pay any attention to the backdrops on sitcoms, but I will from now on.  The penultimate section is "Nudes"; the comic book women from "Romance" are back, but now their faces are attached to naked bodies.  Okay, but they left me cold, I'm afraid.

The final section is "Landscapes in the Chinese Style," which was amazing.  They are clearly Lichtensteins; the dots are there in every piece, but I might have been walking in the Freer.  The pieces are exactly like things I've seen there, and I was delighted with them.  The love of nature, with tiny figures to show man's place next to enormous mountains or in mighty rivers was there in abundance.  There's even a sculpture, "Scholar's Rock," which reminded me of a show I saw at the Sackler that included rocks used for contemplation by scholars.  "Landscape with Philosopher" and "Yellow Cliffs" were the pieces that caught my eye in this section.

Verdict: A great show - a real must-see.  Note that this is the biggest show I've seen at the National Gallery, so plan on spending more than one lunch hour, or look quickly.

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