Roy Lichtenstein, Look
Roy Lichtenstein, Look

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Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol are usually credited as the founding fathers of Pop Art, but the two men didn’t play for the same team. Sure, there’s something irresistible about the day in 1961 when Warhol dropped by Leo Castelli’s gallery, discovered Lichtenstein’s cartoon-inspired painting of a girl holding a beach ball, and, shocked and a little hurt, announced to gallery co-director Ivan Karp, “I make paintings like that.” Warhol was mistaken: He and Lichtenstein were making very different work, for very different reasons.

Yes, both men turned to the funny pages for inspiration at roughly the same time. A year before Lichtenstein painted “Look Mickey” (1961)—his first painting using hard comic-book dots and lines in single shades of red, yellow, and blue to depict Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, fishing—Warhol had already deconstructed single panels of Dick Tracy, Popeye, and Superman comics. Lichtenstein had simply outmaneuvered his younger, bewigged competitor and wooed the key gallerist in town first.

But with the source material, the similarities end. Generally speaking, Warhol’s career was driven by overexposed images and celebrity. Warhol mechanically reproduced images that held no personal interest for him, reflecting bland middle-American appetites—soup cans, boxes of Brillo pads, Elvis. Lichtenstein, meanwhile, may have deployed a commercial illustrational style, but his studio practice was in many ways traditional. When Lichtenstein painted, he addressed the nature of vision, composition, and the act of looking at other works of fine art. Easel painting in Lichtenstein’s world may have been in a crisis, but the artist still used it to measure himself against his artistic forebears and to carve out his own strange-looking spot in the pantheon.

One of these two men was a harbinger for the end of art as we knew it. The other was just a shrewd painter’s painter navigating a tricky art-historical crossroads.

“Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective” is the first full survey in almost 20 years of the guy who broke Andy Warhol’s heart that day in New York. It comes to the National Gallery from the Art Institute of Chicago with 135 pieces representing five decades. Co-curators James Rondeau from the Art Institute and Sheena Wagstaff from the Metropolitan Museum of Art cast Lichtenstein as both a classicist control freak and a trailblazer. There are no sweeping revisions or grand pronouncements here, just careful consideration of what the man and his paintings might mean in the present tense—especially now that painting and print media both seem to be headed out to pasture.

From his first Pop paintings, created when the artist was 37 and struggling, to his final Chinese landscape-themed works, produced when he was in his 70s and had nothing left to prove, the native Manhattanite painter never strayed far from a narrow idea of how to paint. Lichtenstein cut the creative act down to simple operations involving a toothbrush, a perforated dot screen, and a handful of pure colors and heavy outlines. He stuck with and refined this formula for the rest of his life. Along the way there were experiments with sculpture, furniture, even gee-whiz op-art objects. In this retrospective, though, all of these appear subordinate to the paintings—where the real heavy lifting happened.

Lichtenstein’s first cartoon painting appears in the show’s first room. “Look Mickey” is surprisingly loose: It’s not an airtight detail-by-detail simulacrum; instead, it’s a roughed-out curiosity.

The painting is based not on a comic book, but on a children’s storybook illustration of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, originally printed in a full range of colors and contrasts. Lichtenstein radically simplified the image, using only red, yellow, and blue. Mickey’s skin tone is achieved via red halftone dots—which were infamously dabbed onto the canvas using a dog-grooming brush.

“Look Mickey” is not so much a reproduction as it is an abstraction: One set of visual codes is substituted for another; the result is something new. Lichtenstein even adds a word balloon where none existed in the original.

Lichtenstein’s pencil lines are still visible, and intersect with the heavy blue contours of Donald and Mickey. The effect is not of a machine-made copy, but of a quasi-improvisatory painting created all in one sitting.

Roy Lichtenstein, “Landscape in Fog,” 1996

In the show’s second room, Lichtenstein’s early ’60s black-and-white work demonstrates how dissimilar objects could all be fetishized the same way, reduced to simple interlocking patterns like newspaper ads. In three paintings circa 1963, jewelry, a golf ball, and knobby tire tread all dazzle the eye as if they were made of quicksilver. Here again Lichtenstein is turning the world into something alien, artificial, flat. Pop was supposedly about the real world roaring back into the rarefied empty space of academic high art—but here Lichtenstein has just replaced one kind of emptiness with another.

The best-known Lichtensteins, of course, feature damsels in distress and explosive combat, lifted in the mid-’60s from titles like DC Comics’ Secret Hearts, or All-American Men at War. By this point Lichtenstein’s faint pencil underdrawings were beginning to disappear; his technique for stenciling dots became more sure-footed; and his use of Magna paints allowed him to wipe out his mistakes and start over at will.

He may have been trying to hide from the viewer, but he had a wicked sense of humor about it. Abstract Expressionism reflected the belief that painting should reveal the artist’s subjectivity; Jackson Pollock famously said that when he was “in his painting,” he wasn’t aware of what he was doing. The typical ’50s AbEx painter battled intuitively with deep metaphysical truths in his art. Lichtenstein replaced the drama of self-revelation with second-hand pulp melodrama, using interior lovesick monologues and exterior shoot-’em-ups to deflect a fine-art audience’s expectations.

By the late ’60s, Lichtenstein looked more to the museum than to the newsstand. From stylized takes on Synthetic Cubism; to depictions of imagined studio interiors à la Matisse; to art deco confections making light of the style he referred to as “Cubism for the home,” Lichtenstein processed the work of his immediate ancestors via the same few abstracting procedures he used for “Look Mickey.”

In this way, Lichtenstein remained a consummate modernist. Modern painting, after all, was about refusals: of the more seductive qualities of the medium, of illusionistic space, of received pictorial conventions. Lichtenstein made an end run around that last one by borrowing ideas from a different discipline—but otherwise his modernist credentials check out just fine.

Especially that denial of illusionistic space. Lichtenstein was a master of setting up queasy op-art vibrations via color and texture across large, flat expanses of canvas. Even the masterful late Chinese landscapes, with their atmospheric effects, spatial confusion, and playful jumps in scale remain flat—the teeny-tiny orange-clad figure in the lower right hand corner of “Landscape with Philosopher” (1996) draws the viewer close enough to the surface of the painting that the mountain ranges simply dissolve into undulating dot bands, describing nothing.

One sour note: The names of the comics artists that Lichtenstein borrowed from in the mid-’60s—people like Tony Abruzzo, Irv Novick, and Jack Kirby—are not mentioned in the show’s wall text. The curators largely treat these artists and their work as if they are irrelevant to Lichtenstein’s discipline. In a sense, they are correct. Lichtenstein himself seems to have viewed comics as unworthy of contemplation. The artist occasionally misled people about his sources: He once claimed the basis for “Look Mickey” was a chewing-gum wrapper. Surely given how extensively he transformed the original comic art, and how foundational the piece was for him, he must have remembered it.

Comics were to Lichtenstein as African masks were to Picasso—merely new tools for the toolbox. This more than anything marks Warhol and Lichtenstein as being part of two different conversations: one culturally promiscuous and barrier-crashing; the other one staying well behind the museum’s barricades.