“Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective” at Art Institute of Chicago

Nude with Street Scene
Oil on Magna on canvas
48″ x 67 1/2″
copyright: Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
Photo: courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

Large-scale museum retrospectives of major artists usually have two central objectives–the first is to validate those artists stature, to collect their significant work together for a close and inevitably celebratory perusal. The second (and this is the part that really interests their curators, otherwise they’re just assembling and rearranging inventory) is to propose something new about the artist, or to offer some kind of reconsideration that extends our understanding of their subject. Viewed with those criteria in mind, the Art Institute’s recent retrospective of Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) is a success: it certainly gives its viewers the Lichtenstein they have come to expect, the brassy and almost giddy comic book-derived images of the 1960s and the Pop exuberance of his send-ups of the graphic allure of American advertising. That Lichtenstein is there, and he looks great, his works snap, crackle and pop with the same insouciant energy they did some fifty years ago, with a tongue-in-cheek optimism reflecting an America extremely sure of itself.

But wait, there’s more! It is to the credit of James Rondeau and Sheena Wagstaff, co-curators of this exhibition (he of the AIC, she of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), that we’re finished with those pieces of the early and mid-1960s, still Lichtenstein’s signature works, by the third or fourth room of this large retrospective. The great majority of this show is in fact given over to the lesser-known Lichtenstein, and to the topics that concerned him for the remainder of his life. In order, the curators identify those as Brushstrokes, Explosions, Landscapes, Art History, Modern, Mirrors, Entablatures, Artist’s Studios, Perfect/Imperfect, Nudes, and Landscapes in the Chinese Style. While many of the works segmented out in these sections are not unknown, their proportional representation here–vis-a-vis his entire career–provides a much more balanced view of Lichtenstein’s oeuvre than those exhibitions that front-load his comic book derived work and cursorily treat the rest of his life. While Lichtenstein pretty much finished with comic book sources by 1965, the
formal principles he absorbed by then–Ben-Day dots, bold colors, graphic artists’ solutions to gradations of tone–remained with him until his death, in 1997. While he moved on from comics and ads, he never moved on from graphic illustration techniques; during his long career, he did more gradations of dots and dashes and diagonals than Seurat.

Lichtenstein shared the broader American journey into darkness of the 1960s from Camelot to Altamont, and there’s a kind of mean-spirited quality to his Brushstroke images that mercilessly flay the aspirations of the Abstract Expressionists who still stood in his and his colleagues way. (I would give anything to know what de Kooning thought about while in front of a picture like Little Big Painting, 1965.) Lichtenstein spent the next 30 years applying his formal procedures to a wide range of interests, sometimes overlapping, but most often concentrating on one or another for a few years, spinning them out in endless extrapolations until they were pretty much exhausted. Some of these themes, seen in depth here, seemed particularly strong–the Mirrors, Lichtenstein’s abstract work in the Modern series, the late Landscapes in the Chinese Style–while others appeared a bit more perfunctory. In his usually non-transformative forays into Art History, the Landscapes, etc., Lichtenstein’s general tendency was pretty much just to Lichtensteinize something. But that almost seems to be Rondeau and Wagstaff’s point: that these are the things that concerned him, often for long periods of time, and that our examination of him should be a total one, not just the early Greatest Hits played in an endless loop. Their approach provided the richest sense of Lichtenstein that I have yet encountered, while a room full of drawings, tucked away in the midst of this massive retrospective, was refreshingly intimate and offered a little of Lichtenstein unplugged, providing a fine respite.

All was not perfect, however: considering the scale of this retrospective–probably the definitive Lichtenstein show for this generation–it was surprising that in a catalogue authored by no less than nine individuals, no room was made for a bibliography, an omission which diminishes its scholarly use and significance. The curators also dolloped out supporting illustrations parsimoniously–those source materials in comic books, ads, art history, etc.–without which most museum visitors can’t tell if Lichtenstein is creating or adapting his subject matter, and thus can’t fully comprehend his decision-making process. Just for fun, though, I checked a bunch of standard art history textbooks, the kind most likely to allot Lichtenstein one illustration; without exception, they had him represented by works from 1962-66, almost all from the comic book period. This is the kind of exhibition that amply demonstrates the inaccuracy of that viewpoint.

For those still eager to engage Lichtenstein, who did not have the chance to see the show this summer in Chicago, the exhibition will be at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, October 14, 2012 – January 6, 2013, and then travel on to the Tate Modern in London, February 21 – May 27 2013 and to the Centre Pompidou in Paris, July 3 – November 4, 2013.
-James Wood