Art review: ‘Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective’ at the National Gallery

October 12, 2012

Roy Lichtenstein. The painter’s name is linked with his signature comic-book images of women, their thoughts rising in text bubbles above tentacles of tousled hair, mounds of tears leaking from their eyes. In 1993, a blockbuster Lichtenstein retrospective at the Guggenheim, some 200 pieces strong, sealed the painter’s reputation as a prime instigator of Pop art. This week, another major Lichtenstein show (“Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective”) arrives at the National Gallery, fresh from the Art Institute of Chicago where it opened earlier this year, with a slightly different take. In the 15,000 square feet that the National Gallery has devoted to the exhibit, the comic-book women from the 1960s occupy exactly one room.

Lichtenstein (1923-1997) was so prolific that there are a lot of ways to slice and dice his output. (It’s notable how relatively little overlap there is between the Guggenheim show and the 135 works exhibited at the National Gallery.) His signature style, of course, remains constant from the early 1960s, when he began exploring mass-media conventions of rendering three-dimensional objects, with three-color printing and screens of Benday dots. He started out with images taken from phone books and newspaper ads and comic books — a golf ball, a spray can, Mickey Mouse — and over the years broadened his range of recognizable cultural icons to include canonical works of art history: Matisse still lifes, Picasso nudes, 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 mass-market filter. And most resorted at least in places to the trademark dots.

But the dots were less depersonalizing than you might initially think. One frequent misapprehension about Pop art, and Lichtenstein’s work, is that because the painter adopted the language of mechanical reproduction, his works are essentially mass-producible themselves. I certainly espoused this view after seeing the 1990s retrospective.

The National Gallery show, however, in 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 can’t fully be communicated in reproductions. Even the dots have a presence (as a catalogue essay by Harry Cooper, the National Gallery’s contemporary art curator, illuminates). The first three works you see as you enter the show emphasize this physicality, from the painterly surface of the ceiling in “Artist’s Studio ‘Look Mickey’ ” (1973) to the textured, slightly scored silver panel in “Entablature” (1975) to the vivid corporeality of “Galatea,” (1990) a three-dimensional sculpture cutting the artist’s signature sensuous black lines through the gallery air.

Lichtenstein’s work is not simply about conventions of reproduction like print screens and dots; it’s about the artistic depiction of those conventions. And what animates it is not solely its inherent social criticism, but the tension between the individuality of the painter’s hand and eye and the impersonality of what he uses them to illustrate. This tension runs through the whole show, and is what made it such a delight, even a revelation.


Dorothy Lichtenstein, the widow of Roy Lichtenstein, poses for a portrait in the ‘Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective’ exhibition. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

It’s always fun to have a show make you reevaluate an artist you thought you knew. After the 1993 retrospective, I came away feeling Lichtenstein had had a burst of fecundity in the 1960s and ended up repeating himself or looking in vain for a way to get back to that initial energy. The current show, by contrast, shows him dumping a huge bag of tricks out on the table in the ’60s and continuing to play with them, examine them, and follow them ever further to new solutions, for the rest of his life.

The biggest “trick” involved the comic-book subject matter and style that comes into the work in 1961 with a bang and the piece “Look, Mickey.” Nothing is quite what it seems in a Lichtenstein painting, and this image of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck turns out to have been quoted not from a comic book, but from a children’s book illustration: Lichtenstein actually returned it from a more painterly idiom to a comic-book one, with three-color “printing” 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 making this supposedly mechanical image, and in subtly altering it from its original form — something Lichtenstein did in all his comic-based work.

Indeed, the dots tend to detract attention from Lichtenstein’s concern for composition. The artist liked a central focus, often punching (figurative) holes through the middle of his canvas, whether the empty space in the middle of “The Ring” (1962), the graphic explosions in comic-book depictions of war (complete with onomatopoeic sound effects: “WHAM!” “BRATATAT!”), or the locked lips of two lovers in “We Rose Up Slowly,” conjoined in a single ovoid shape suggested of a woman’s sexual organs, right at 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 pulled back to reveal a white void. This sits atop an array of ironic surfaces: a wineglass, unctuously refracting bits of the colors around it; a plate, with dots marking the conventions of depicting reflection that so fascinated Lichtenstein he did several series of “Mirrors” (and that came to the fore in his masterful “Reflections on ‘Interior with Girl Drawing’ ” from 1990 — pun on “reflections” very much intended). At the left — where many of Lichtenstein’s canvases have an exit or a door out — these layered surfaces yield to an impassive square of background, a surface of uninterrupted paint so airless it’s more impenetrable than any of the objects at the painting’s center.

In a couple of later works, the central focus 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 painting in a vivid sherbet orange that became a frequent pop of accent color as the artist’s palette expanded.

The humor and self-referentiality can grow a little cloying. Lichtenstein, it sometimes seems, can’t do anything without quotation marks around it; he can’t even paint a brush stroke, only a “Brush Stroke” (the first of which, in 1965, was lifted from a comic book), and even when he experiments in later works with actual streaks of paint, he applied them with a rag, not a brush. In an oeuvre 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 atop a T-shirt, or find that the hand of an artist in one of the Artist’s Studio series from the mid-1970s is drawing a Matisse drawing, leaving deliberately open the question of which artist it is we’re talking about.

Too, when Lichtenstein had an idea, he returned to it again and again, and while all of the resulting series make him something of a curator’s dream — the thematic arrangement is done from the start — not all of them are equally compelling. I get the idea behind the dull ugly surfaces of the abstract “Perfect” and “Imperfect Paintings,” with jagged forms either contained within the bounds of the canvas or extending beyond the edges in odd triangles and corners. They represent one extreme of Lichtenstein’s steady exploration of ways to remove significance from the images in his paintings. I just don’t find them all that interesting to look at more than once.

One advantage that the current retrospective has over the earlier one is that it can show the artist’s late work: The two rooms of paintings done after 1993 are the most compelling in the show. In his “Nudes,” starting in 1994, his comic-book women acquire bodies, and a whole new dimension to their cheesy latent sexuality. We have the same faces, the same dots, the same conventions — the women’s nipples look like the declivities in the 1962 “Golf Ball,” another two-dimensional depiction of a rounded surface. But as the artist shows in “Nude With Bust,” adding the body creates an important distinction. When the red-lipped head is depicted from the shoulders up, on a pedestal, it’s art. When it’s atop a full body with perky breasts, it’s cheesecake. Or 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 receiving a shower of dots like a modern-day Danae, with a single streak of orange descending down the canvas to reinforce the gold metaphor and puddle on the ground beneath her. The vertical one, already suffused with dots and visible only as a (desexualized) bust, either leaves the picture or keeps us, the viewer, out of it — the antithesis of the inviting serving-woman in Manet’s “Olympia,” one of many antecedents on the art/cheesecake spectrum. With this work, Lichtenstein moves away from merely quoting tradition to allowing himself at last to join it.

Lichtenstein died unexpectedly of pneumonia at 73, in the middle 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: the dots are ranked in different sizes to form foggy, poetic evocations of traditional Chinese painting, with an occasional little figure, cartoon-like, intruding like something out of “Where’s Waldo?” The late nudes may be more fecund, but these works make a beautiful coda.

Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective

is on view at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building through Jan. 6. On the Mall at Fourth Street NW. 202-737-4215. www.nga.gov.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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