Pop Art is not only not art ... it is not even bad art," wrote Barbara Rose, a well-known critic and curator, in 1965. Pop Art was never a critic's movement, but it became the most popular art movement in American history. It happened because Pop Art showed something about us: It exhibited our materialism and voyeurism in a direct and unassuming manner.
After 40 years there is still something fresh and ambiguous enough to make you ponder those cartoon paintings, Marilyn silk-screens, and hamburger sculptures. Don't miss the opportunity to revisit the myth with the Museum of Contemporary Art's show, "Roy Lichtenstein: Inside/Outside." Curated by Bonnie Clearwater, the exhibition introduces us to a lesser-known Lichtenstein as sculptor, and the result is surprising.
In the Forties, after graduating from Ohio State University and joining its faculty as an instructor, Lichtenstein ambivalently explored his love for the machine, commercial themes, and anything dealing with nineteenth-century Americana. Lichtenstein would later travel to New York from Cleveland, where he resided, absorbing firsthand the lives of the Abstract Expressionists and going to the same bars de Kooning, Kline, and Pollock frequented, though he never made contact with any of them.
In 1960 he moved to New Jersey and taught at Douglass College and Rutgers University, which was a brewing spot for young artists, poets, and musicians. Allan Kaprow and Robert Watts (both teachers at Rutgers) introduced Lichtenstein to the likes of Oldenburg, Samaras, Segal, and other artists who later became involved with the Fluxus group: Geoffrey Hendricks, Dick and Allison Higgins, and George Maciunas. After that Lichtenstein began incorporating cartoon figures into his Abstract pictures.
Look Mickey (1961) is the first painting in which Lichtenstein used a cartoon or a panel from a comic strip. In it the artist inserted Ben Day dots and dialogue balloons. Lichtenstein also appropriated advertising images and made his first diptych paintings. Then he met Leo Castelli (who confessed not to understand the artist's work) and ended up with a weekly stipend of $400.
By 1962 Lichtenstein's work was reviewed in Arts Magazine, Newsweek, and Life. Philip Johnson, one of America's prominent architects, purchased his work, as did other important collectors, such as Irving Blum and Ileana Sonnabend. A year later Johnson would ask Lichtenstein to produce a mural for the New York State Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens.
At MoCA you can see some works from this period. Crying Girl belongs to Lichtenstein's well-known study of female anxiety at the end of the Fifties, developed in other works such as Oh, Jeff...I Love You Too, But; and Drowning Girl (not shown at the exhibition). Soon Lichtenstein became one of Pop Art's brightest stars. Less didactic than Oldenburg and more articulate than Warhol, Lichtenstein kept an intriguing Pop persona. His work was at once conceptual and puzzling enough to keep everybody guessing.
By the early Seventies the artist was able to command the highest price yet paid for the work of any living artist. His Big Painting No. 6 sold at an auction for $75,000. While Pop Art was becoming an old story, Lichtenstein realized he could still adopt certain images and keep his work valid. So as if moving chronologically through art history, he rehashed in his own way the work of Cubists, Futurists, Purists, and Surrealists, while producing a good deal of interesting sculpture. See his Sleeping Muse, Non-objective, and Mobile I, at MoCA, all "sharpening" (as Lichtenstein put it) the styles of Brancusi, Mondrian, and Calder, respectively.
There are real treats in the show, such as Cup and Saucer, Lamp on Table, and Goldfish Bowl, all sculptures giving the illusion of three-dimensional drawings, an ingenious challenge to sculptural conventions and optical habits. Coup de Chapeau II is tricky, funny, and kinetic; the starlike abstract Wall Explosion truly is a blast. In Picture and Pitcher from the late Seventies, Lichtenstein aptly plays with perspective, superimposition of planes, volume, texture, and shade. We see a window above and behind the pitcher showing a house and the sky. The use of the colors yellow and gray and the shaded area is so skillful that we get the impression of the pitcher's glass augmenting the frame of the window behind it.
In the exhibition catalogue, Clearwater persuasively presents a Lichtenstein deeply concerned with the formal implications that follow the act of seeing. She supports Lichtenstein's style -- not as appropriation for its own sake but as a way of playing with people's historic and perceptive assumptions. True, in Magnifying Glass, a piece from the Sixties, we see dots under a magnifying glass as much bigger than those in the painting's field. Yet Lichtenstein's sleight of hand is so much about seeing the effect that the apparent obviousness becomes cryptic: One begins to wonder if one is missing the point.
Man with Folded Arms clearly indicates Lichtenstein's awareness that he is copying Erle Loran's didactic diagram of Cézanne's Man with Arms Folded (Lichtenstein switches the words in the title). Lichtenstein's choice runs counter to German critic Walter Benjamin's idea that the more you copy something, the less "aura" it holds. The artist rightly intuited that "copying" a Picasso, or a Léger -- as he did -- would make the work into something other than just a mere copy. In this sense Pop may resemble Dada but is not quite the same.
Lichtenstein's sculptures pursued the formal concerns to which Clearwater points but not so much his paintings (as she seems to imply). In fact Lichtenstein's canvases, sparse and brilliant in hue as they are, allow little tolerance for spatial illusion. Whereas Duchamp would use ready-mades to -- puzzlingly -- make a point of what is (and not) art, Lichtenstein copied out of "my love for the original," as he admitted. Copying and magnifying, two of the artist's favorite tricks, gave him the ability to assimilate the style of Pop as a living culture. After all, isn't our mass culture -- with TV, movies, mass media, the computer -- a kind of magnifying, snooping machine?
Lichtenstein once remarked he didn't think he could have come up with something as good as his copies on his own. Joke aside, one can see his sort of antiseptic art as pure parody, a way of deceiving people into thinking seriously. Lichtenstein, like Warhol, reacted against the attitude of people who viewed Pop Art as what-you-see-is-what-you-get aesthetics.
During the Eighties Lichtenstein did a series of public projects, including Salute to Painting, a large outdoor sculpture installed at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and Modern Head, a 32-foot-high sculpture installed in Battery Park City in lower Manhattan, finished in 1991. He also made a few Abstract Expressionist pieces.
Then we have Lichtenstein's interiors and his Chinese paintings. The interiors are self-referential and cerebral, paraphrasing his life and style already processed by the culture. Check out the Hokusai-like Landscape with Boat and the almost psychedelic Collage for Interior with Painting of Nude. Here, instead of doing collage, he simulates it. This last period is weaker, in terms of breaking new ground, as if the artist stopped copying "a style" to indulge his own symbols already rehashed from his own copies (he who had always eschewed being symbolic).
In retrospect Lichtenstein was able to develop a style by copying the style of an epoch, which remains an unavoidable riddle of Modern art. A psychologist of American mores, Lichtenstein was a stylistic provocateur. In his work we find teenage drama, modern deep-seated anxieties, the relation between pretense and advertising, and the never-ending problem of illusion in Modern art.
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