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We’ve gotten over the shock of Roy Lichtenstein. Sure, in the early 1960s, his transformation of images from comic books by Jack Kirby or Tony Abruzzo into large-scale paintings ruffled plenty of feathers. Modern art then was supposed to be abstract, spontaneous, and serious; Lichtenstein was graphic, calculating, and funny. But compared with outré works of contemporary art—Damian Hirst’s 14 foot taxidermied tiger shark; Takashi Murakami’s life-sized sculpture of a masturbating manga boy—Lichtenstein now seems pretty tame.
Maybe that’s a good thing. Lichtenstein’s embrace of parody and camp may have seemed like a repudiation of his peers, but his work was never really anti-art. Indeed, now that pop art is firmly entrenched in the canon, it’s easy to see that Lichtenstein was intent on responding to and extending the history of traditional easel painting. In a weird way, Lichtenstein was a painter’s painter.
“Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective” should offer plenty of evidence of the inherent classicism of Lichtenstein’s mature work. Arriving from the Art Institute of Chicago, the show features 130 paintings from all stages of the Ben-Day-dot-obsessed artist’s career, along with selected drawings and sculptures.
Lichtenstein arrived at his signature style relatively late in his career. He was 37 years old and teaching at Rutgers University when he created his first hard-edged, flat, cartoon-based painting, “Look Mickey” (1961)—which features a panel from the children’s book Donald Duck Lost and Found. As with all of his paintings, “Look Mickey” is not merely a faithful, point-by-point copy: Lichtenstein always worked from his own hand-drawn studies, and subtly altered his source material with heightened emphasis, substitutions, or cropping. The work, then, is not about mechanical reproduction or the deskilling of art, but instead about how we perceive and respond to the world around us at a remove, through images.
It took Lichtenstein a long time to arrive at his signature style; once he discovered it, he pursued it with remarkable consistency, painting in a recognizable flat, simplified manner all the way through to his death in 1997. Over the years, his strategies for applying painting remained largely the same, but his subject matter did change—from fine art paintings of comic books, to comic book-style paintings of Western and Eastern fine-art masterpieces.
The big question with Lichtenstein is whether his reliance on a single big idea for so many decades indicates strength and conceptual unity in his oeuvre or inherent limitations. Whether you believe that the artist was super-focused or just stuck in a rut, Lichtenstein brokered uneasy exchanges between mediated experiences and handmade painterly objects like no one before him.