Today, we think of Roy Lichtenstein as one of the most-loved stars in the Pop Art constellation. But in reality, he came of age in an art world whose reception of his work was chilly at best. In 1964, Life magazine acidly asked, “Is he the worst artist in America?” while more urbane critics, who at the time were enamored with abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko, called his art “vulgar.”
Lichtenstein, for his part, seemed to relish his role as an antihero. In 1963, he told an interviewer that he wanted to make art “despicable enough” so that no one would hang it on their walls. Which is ironic, since today he’s familiar to the point of being cliché (you know you’ve made it when your work becomes a popular Halloween costume). “He was a master of satire in the 1960s,” Michael Kimmelman wrote in 1995. “And if in his later years he was somewhat taken for granted, this was partly because his ideas had so infiltrated art that they were no longer only his.” In other words, Lichtenstein, in spite of himself, set in motion the ball that would eventually roll to Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and dozens of others.
At a traveling retrospective curated by the Art Institute of Chicago, Lichtenstein’s legacy is examined for the first time since his death from pneumonia, in 1997. For those of you (like me) who felt ambivalent about Lichtenstein’s work, the show does an excellent job of cracking open the canonized shell and pulling out the rich, complicated body of work he created over four decades.
Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective opened last week at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where it stretches out over 15,000 square feet of gallery space. It shows us work from his student days at Rutgers, like the hilarious George Washington Crossing the Delaware (1951), done up in Picasso-esque cubism. As a young graduate, he began experimenting with commercial images and packaging, in an attempt to shake the oppressive style diktats handed down by his abstract expressionist forefathers. Look Mickey was one of his earliest, and Lichtenstein often said he painted it after one of his kids challenged him to draw anything better than a Mickey Mouse cartoon. As the New York Times notes, “Lichtenstein would later say that he painted it for his kids. In reality, he painted it for himself, to get as far away as possible from where he’d been.”
Lichtenstein’s most famous works are much in evidence in the show, like the self-referential Masterpiece (1962), which shows a woman telling a melancholy man how New York will clamor over one of his paintings. During the '60s, he developed a vocabulary of dots and lines, mimicking commercial printing techniques, that would stay with him for the rest of his career. It’s fascinating to see how he applied his distinctive language to vastly different eras of work. For example, his landscape series from 1969 depict things like haystacks, or the Rouen Cathedral, only barely recognizable through a gridded veil of dots.
Lichstenstein was a frequent commenter on art history, translating tropes ranging from mirrors to female nudes into his graphic language. Even in the mid-'60s, his Brushstroke series—which show close-up comic renderings of a paint splatters and looping strokes—were a meta nod to Pollock and his disciples. Later on in life, he turned his gaze further back, re-creating paintings of the studios of artists like Van Gogh. His last works before he died, a series of beautiful landscapes based on Song Dynasty watercolors, are a perfect representation of his curious, thoughtful perspective as an artist.
If you, like me, skipped the Lichtenstein section in Art History 101, this article from 1963 does a great job explaining the climate of the art world at the time. Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective is on view until March 24, 2013.