It seems like ages ago but it was only toward the end of October when we visited Washington D.C. (see “The Greening of America” post) and took in a retrospective of Roy Lichtenstein’s work at the National Gallery East. I wanted to write about it at the time, but reality intruded, and art (his, not mine) had to wait as is all too common. The intervening few months have dimmed or erased certain memories, but perhaps have served to sharpen others like pencils at a drafting table. If I err, bear with me.
I had thought I knew Lichtenstein. He did cartoonish paintings (or were they painted cartoons?). People called it Pop, and, more than anything, it seemed fun. A lot of it still seems fun, but it seems a mistake to subsume his work under such a narrow rubric as Pop. The early section of the exhibit features abstract expressionistic works, as if he were trying to find place in the then current art scene. These works are not memorable. Then he found a technique—the dots used for cheap reproduction in newspaper photos and comic books, and his success was assured, although it is difficult to say why. Maybe because the resulting work was such fun. But more than that. With the problem of technique out of the way, Lichtenstein could focus on more painterly issues like color and composition, both of which he mastered. But more than that. By introducing captions in his cartoonish portraits (of course cartoons need captions), he parlayed them into a deeper level of wit and psychological, if not visual, realism. My favorite of this part of the exhibit was a head shot of a gorgeous blond with the enbubbled caption, “O, Jeff . . . I love you, too . . . but . . . . Fleshing out the caption (as it were) is the composition of face and hair and the yearning but worldly expression, an image that could be the stuff of dreams for a sophisticated young stud but hardly a wet aspiration of a tween or acned teenager, thus belying it’s supposed origins in the magazine racks of corner drug stores where I once ogled Veronica’s curves.
The following gallery sported pictures inspired not by war but by war comics—airplanes spitting death and fire from their machine guns complete with sound effects: “WHAM”, “TAKKA TAKKA.” They are fun, too, in a grim sort of way, but perhaps only if you grew up during World War II.
And then into the new (for me): a series of paintings based on the work of masters from Monet and Van Gogh to Picasso. These paintings shouldn’t work, but they do. Lichtenstein uses his dots to compose the images, and instead of coming across as copies, the shift in technique presents them as homages. On one wall were three versions of Monet’s cathedral at Rouen flanked by two haystacks as if saying, these deserve another look.
And then other motifs—mirrors, brush strokes, full nudes (as opposed to the heads that we are used to). Until we get to a series called, “Landscapes in the Chinese Style.” Like Thiebeaud, like Diebenkorn, like Serra, Lichtenstein found late in his life what with hindsight he seemed to be moving toward his whole career. The dots are there—they now flood the canvas—and to achieve texture and depth (although the canvases remain as flat as a comic strip panel) the dots are of different sizes and usually in a monochrome quite different from the basic colors of earlier work. He still likes to have fun, even though the overall mood of the pieces is one of serenity. In one large seascape full of waves like a Homer, a small boat, a very small boat, actually half of a boat, peeks in from the edge. In another, called as I recall, “The Philosopher,” it takes some searching of the large vertically oriented canvas, depicting stylized Chinese mountains and spindly trees, to find a tiny figure that despite his small size conveys a sense of contemplation. Other landscapes have nothing of the figurative, but explore receding mountain ranges arrayed in fog. As with Thiebeaud’s Sacramento Delta paintings, I was loathe to leave.