Before viewing the Roy Lichtenstein retrospective, I had been completely oblivious to the double entendre on the word “comic” in his work. So let’s take a closer look:
To the average person, “comic book paintings” fairly encapsulates the artist’s oeuvre. He gets swept up with all the other 1960s artists and eclipsed by the Abstract Expressionists, more undervalued because of the pop culture references and lack of supposed ideological backing. Warhol of course garners more credibility because of the cult of “pop” he created around him and the celebrity status he attained (and please, we’re all numb to the serial images of the already over-exposed Marilyn). But the biting commentary on social norms of the era and subtle wit Lichtenstein employed to do so are a true revelation in understanding his place in the art historical spectrum. He started his career in painting with the no doubt artistically satisfying task of painting dial markings on volt and amp meters. Perhaps informed by this unexpected education or perhaps not, he approaches his subjects with reductive minimalism, but happily not the pretentious kind that is increasingly unimpressive. Equipped with a simple color palette and clean lines, he has almost reveled in his role as the quirky middle child of Contemporary Art.
It’s almost unfortunate that he never pursued a career in animation—pair him with an Alan Menken score and imagine the Disney masterpiece! Even his rough sketches—assuming they were actually rough—display a skill in rendering human features more effortlessly than even the Old Masters themselves. Through the aforementioned minimalism, a simple line is contoured into the anguished face of a pilot or a distressed damsel, their thoughts comically lackadaisical to their often dire situations. A personal favorite component surfaces in these sketches: while typically mere details in an excited composition, organic elements with sinuous curves empower static forms giving them added motion and energy, and are somehow vacated of the sinister fear that pervades such forms more famous in the graphics of Art Nouveau (ironic, as Lichtenstein was dealing with the very real terror of the Cold War instead of the nineteenth century equivalent of Y2K). Cartoonish scribble is refined and integrated into masterworks of superhero proportions.
And the dots. Simple and seemingly unsubstantial, but really a witty and adorable supporting chorus to underscore and unify Lichtenstein’s boldly dramatic themes and undercutting commentary. Not as submissive as the aliens in “Toy Story” nor as diabolical as Gru’s minions in “Despicable Me,” but with an attitude and a snark all their own—like a fleet of sedated Flubber. With a humble beginning like Lichtenstein’s, they were first produced with a plastic bristle dog-grooming brush—no doubt applied with OCD-inducing, systematic diligence—before he developed an aluminum stencil for their application and they became a staple in the artist’s work, like a lorax, a sneedle, or a Foona Lagoona Baboona in a Dr. Seuss book. (Unfortunately the gradated dots of his later work were less successful, but since I am otherwise a fan, I won’t dwell. Although I will give him props for the skin tones and depth of features achieved in his later nudes—a bit pixilated, but we will prevail.) It’s hard to believe that they are not derived from Seurat’s divisionism given their color, shading, and ultimate depth they provide a piece, but Lichtenstein was clearly not a colorist, unless you count the primaries.
A fun Art History exam would be to present a series of Lichtenstein paintings and then identify the source of their inspiration. These are not his iconic works, but they are done in his iconic style (mostly). Test your knowledge by guessing this one: (Hint!)
(The above piece, which I have lovingly dubbed “Washington Paddles the Delaware,” is perhaps best appreciated with this musical accompaniment as background music.) When asked of his parodies, Lichtenstein commented, “The things that I have apparently parodied I actually admire.” However, stripping the paintings of their historical ethos reminds us why art exists in the first place: creative exploration and expression. Despite his talent and inspired vision in the evolving but seminal culture in which he worked, this grounded mentality was invariably present in his art, as he once retorted with the modest comment, “Brushstrokes in a painting convey a sense of grand gesture; but in my hands, the Brushstroke becomes a depiction of grand gesture.” It’s refreshing when someone is spared from possessing demonic artistic ego.
The exhibition itself speaks volumes, so pay it a visit before it closes in early September.
Suggested wine pairing: Lichtenstein had a penchant for being simple and subversive; try something also praised for being “bright and zesty and crisp”: an Albariño. Perhaps a bit exotic in name, but hopefully with a similarly refreshing power behind its punch (equally as advisable with sarcasm, but less so with hot dogs).