A Long Look at Roy Lichtenstein's Art
By Thomas Connors
Laocoön, 1988, by Roy Lichtenstein.
Like a singer whose fame is forever pegged to her first top 10 hit, an artist is often lodged in the public's imagination because of a single work. Think Van Gogh and Starry Night, Grant Wood and American Gothic, or Edvard Munch's The Scream. For Roy Lichtenstein, whose comic book imagery and Ben-Day dots were a real poke in the eye back in the 1960s (Life asked, "Is he the worst artist in the US?"), that work could well be Drowning Girl, in which our water-swamped heroine cries, "I don't care! I'd rather sink than call Brad for help!" But like his Pop peer, Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein continued over the course of a long career to apply his chosen techniques to a variety of images and media. This May, the Art Institute of Chicago reminds us of his range with "Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective."
"‘The dot guy' or ‘the cartoon guy' was actually an artist with a profound relationship to art history," says curator James Rondeau. "Pop art is often dismissed because of its perceived shallowness, when in fact, as this exhibition will show, Lichtenstein and many of his contemporaries were deeply engaged with visual representation of all kinds, from 19th-century American still lifes to Japanese prints and from classical architecture to mass media."
As a teen, Lichtenstein encountered Picasso's Guernica and for the rest of his life he measured himself against that prolific master, essaying in his own work an equally varied exploration of imagery and effects. Just as he pinched from the funny papers and advertising, he appropriated Picasso's imagery to create pictures that toyed with the notions of originality and representation in an age of commodification. Whether borrowing from the great Spaniard or riffing on Matisse, the artist celebrated the formalism of his predecessors, recasting elements of their imagery in a style that was both joyful and slickly impersonal. In the wake of Abstract Expressionism, he made it okay to paint pictures of people and things again, no matter how phony they appeared.
For all the seeming silliness of his iconography and the sometimes industrial, mass-produced aspect of his work, Lichtenstein was less the provocateur than he was a hard-working artist, one whose every day in the studio was devoted to seeing. As he told the The New York Times in 1995, "Art relates to perception, not nature."
Organized by the Art Institute and set to travel to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and to the Tate Modern in London, Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective is the first major overview of the artist's work since his death in 1997. Comprising over 130 paintings and sculptures, and rarely seen drawings and collages, the show features the Art Institute's own Brushstroke with Spatter, as well as pieces from Chicago collectors An-stiss and Ronald Krueck, Stefan Edlis, Barbara Bluhm-Kaul, and the Duchossois family. "We were looking to present a major survey of a Pop artist to contextualize and supplement the work you can usually see at the Art Institute," notes Rondeau. "Lichtenstein's well-known Pop war and romance series will be on display, but the point of any retrospective is to present surprises and lesser-known aspects of an artist's career. In this case, we are excited to be presenting his versions of Chinese landscapes and his ‘artists' studios' works, which show just how deeply he was invested in the history of art."
"Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective" is on display May 16-September 3 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave.; 312-443-3600
photography by john jonas gruen/getty images (lichtenstein); dave jordano (art institute); estate of roy lichtenstein (laocoön, ohh... alright...)