Once Roy Lichtenstein started painting Ben-Day dots in 1961, could he ever stop? After a tour of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, exhibition Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, you would probably answer no. The more important question is “Why?” The first major exhibition since Lichtenstein’s death in 1997, the show includes all of Lichtenstein’s greatest paintings—which sometimes feel like variations on one single greatest hit—as well as drawings and sculptures related to those icons of pop art. Is this a retrospective of a great artist or a recollecting of a good artist who hit on one great idea over and over, whether willing to do so or not? Fifteen years after Lichtenstein’s passing, it’s finally time to re-connect the dots and see what total portrait they create.
The story of how Lichtenstein arrived at his style sounds like something out of the comic books itself—one of those superhero origin stories where all the elements come together at once. “I bet you can't paint as good as that, eh, Dad?” one of Lichtenstein’s sons challenged his father as he pointed at a Mickey Mouse comic book. Up to that point, Lichtenstein had painted in an abstract style mimicking in some ways that of the Abstract Expressionists. Some of these attempts appear in the exhibition, but they seem timid approaches to the land of “Jack the Dripper” and friends. Taking up his son’s challenge, Lichtenstein painted Look Mickey in 1961 and a star, or at least a star style, was born. For the next 36 years, until his death, Lichtenstein painted in the comic book style, reproducing by hand the mechanized Ben-Day dots used then in printing to create areas of color and shading. Even when he painted non-comic book themes—landscapes, interiors, and even nudes—he did them in those little dots that became his signature. It was his gift, and probably his curse, too.
Fans of Lichtenstein’s comic book panel paintings will wonder at the examples this retrospective has amassed: Masterpiece (1962), in which a woman praises “Brad” (a mocking stand-in for the artist himself) over his latest success; Drowning Girl (1963), in which a woman would rather drown than have “Brad” (again) save her; and Torpedo...LOS! (1963), in which a submarine captain peering through a periscope barks the fateful order. All of these works capture the melodrama and stock emotions of B movies and the comics they emulated.
What still feels fresh and relevant among the comic book panels are the war (anti-war?) images such as Whaam! (1963; shown above), in which an American fighter pilot takes out his opposite number. Like the similar As I Opened Fire series of a year later, Whaam! flies straight out of the pages of popular war-based comic books molding the minds of young men too young yet to fight in either the Cold War or the one starting to heat up—Vietnam. Like most Pop Art, Lichtenstein’s paintings resist easy political readings. Is he celebrating the wham-bam action of war, the thrill of the chase, the glory of the kill? Or is he commenting on that celebration as dehumanizing to both the enemy and self? These questions (even if the artist never meant to raise them) hang over Americans half a century later.
For all his financial and critical success, Lichtenstein often seems trapped in his dots. Works such as Brushstrokes (1965) and Little Big Painting (1965) seem to mock painting itself, as if Lichtenstein saw his chance to become a “serious” painter slipping away, so why take the art itself seriously either. In Portrait of Madame Cézanne (1962), Lichtenstein reduces Cézanne’s revolutionary way of seeing to a set of outlined directions, thus lowering “Mount Cylinder, Sphere, and Cone” to overwrought paint-by-numbers. Lichtenstein later riffs on Monet in the late 1960s with Ben-Day dot versions of Haystacks and Rouen Cathedral and even takes on Picasso with a mid-1970s dotted Cubist Still Life. In 1988, Lichtenstein pressed his nose up against the window of art history in his take on the classical sculpture of Laocoön, but done not in his signature style but in a looser, earlier style that reminds me of Willem de Kooning, who died the same year as Lichtenstein, but had begun a long descent into Alzheimer's disease by the time Lichtenstein painted his Laocoön. Is this a gentle tip of the cap to an admired contemporary, a tantalizing “That could have been me…” gesture, or both?
In a self-portrait in the show from 1978, Lichtenstein sits a mirror atop his dotted, comic book-style bust. It’s hard to see Lichtenstein amidst all the reflections in his work from the comic books, popular culture, and even art history itself. In 1973’s Artist’s Studio "Look Mickey", Lichtenstein showed his inner lair with the work that started it all presiding above it all—masterpiece and maybe mockery all in one. Toward the end, Lichtenstein painted classical nudes and Asian-influenced landscapes of mountains, water, and fog, but all still in the dotted style that dogged him to the end. In 1997, the year he died, Lichtenstein painted a study titled Still Life with Reclining Nude. The nude figurine dominating the jumbled still life on the table top comes directly from Matisse, in exactly the same way Matisse himself would insert his own nude sculptures into his paintings. It’s as if Lichtenstein at the end wished he could be Matisse, but had to settle for being himself. When you connect the dots in Lichtenstein’s oeuvre, as Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective allows you to in what may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, you see that this was no Mickey Mouse artist, but rather an artist whose success allowed him to achieve much while ironically limiting him from maybe achieving even more.
[Many thanks to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, for providing me with the image above and other press materials related to the exhibition Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, which runs through January 13, 2013.]