Roy Lichtenstein at the Art Institute
The museum shows a new side of the Pop artist in a world-premiere exhibition.
“A Retrospective” unearths the pre-Pop abstract experiments that Leo Castelli and Lichtenstein’s other early supporters considered failures, and pairs them with pieces from the end of the artist’s life that are almost as obscure. During the late 1990s, the artist stripped his comic-book heroines for a series of paintings titled Nudes, and explored a longtime interest in Chinese art through Landscapes in the Chinese Style. The latter paintings evoke the Song Dynasty (960–1279) works that Lichtenstein admired, but he created their mountains and water out of benday dots, the same fields of tiny colored circles used in his 1960s comics-based classics.
Rondeau uses works like this to demonstrate that Lichtenstein was a Pop artist to the end. Even after the artist’s famous riffs on comic books ended in 1966, he continued appropriating pre-existing visual material, both high- and lowbrow. While a 1972 painting borrows the goldfish bowl from Henri Matisse’s iconic The Goldfish (1912), the paintings of reflective surfaces in the Mirrors series (1969–72) were inspired by phone-book advertisements for glass suppliers. Unlike the other king of Pop Art, Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein didn’t choose his sources to comment on consumerism, everyday life or current events. (The melodramatic comics that he adapted in the 1960s were several years out of date.) According to Rondeau, he embraced comics, commercial illustration and, later, Chinese landscapes because they engaged his interest “in graphic codes.” The curator points out the curving lines emanating from a mug in Coffee Cup (1961). “This, although it corresponds not at all to our experience of steam or odor, is a pictorial cliché, an agreed-upon language,” he says.
“A Retrospective” includes dozens of surprises, such as benday-dotted renditions of Monet’s Haystacks (1969); the 1970s Entablatures series, an exploration of Roman ornament and its bastardization in turn-of-the-20th-century banks; a film installation; the painting Laocoön (1988), which reinterprets a classical sculpture through neo-Expressionism; and abstract brass sculptures in which Lichtenstein gently parodies Art Deco.
More than 30 of Lichtenstein’s drawings offer insight into his complex working process. The artist never copied. Composition, contrast, language and other elements always changed as he translated images into paintings. He thrived on the contrast between his mass-produced sources and the handmade, labor-intensive nature of his medium. When Marcel Duchamp saw Lichtenstein’s work for the first time, the Surrealist supposedly said, “That’s what I meant. That’s what I mean.” The younger artist understood the art Duchamp pioneered was about more than appropriation, Rondeau explains.
The Art Institute’s lack of Pop Art was one of the curator’s primary motivations for organizing “A Retrospective.” During the 1960s, local collectors focused on homegrown artists like the Monster Roster and Imagists. The Art Institute purchased Lichtenstein’s Brushstroke with Spatter (1966) from Castelli for $4,000 in 1966, “so it’s not that we were completely blind,” Rondeau says, “but our holdings of classic Pop—primarily Warhol and Lichtenstein, but also [James] Rosenquist and [Tom] Wesselmann, and others—are poor. We just can’t do anything like [‘A Retrospective’] with the collection.” It took a staggering five years to organize the show because it required so many loans from institutions and private collectors. Rondeau, who admits “A Retrospective” also happened because he loves Lichtenstein’s work, seems to have no regrets. Well, maybe one: As we look at an early-’60s series of paintings of food, he laments that Roto Broil (1961), owned by Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art, is “impossible to get.”
“Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective” opens May 22.