The Block pops the bubble around Roy Lichtenstein.
If they gave artists Q Scores (a corporate marketing ratings scheme that reflects overall awareness and appeal of celebrities, alive and dead), Roy Lichtenstein’s would probably be near the top of the list. You could make a strong case for his comics paintings of the 1960s as some of the most readily identifiable works of art. But if you think of him only as the Prince of Pop, you are missing the point. “Roy Lichtenstein Prints 1956–97,” on exhibit at the Block Museum of Art, could help set you straight.
No one should discount the power of the early paintings that made Lichtenstein a star. He stole content and imagery from the comic book, then perceived as the basest form of visual narrative, which pervaded the consciousness of everyman, not just effete art lovers. These works enabled him “to seize, to trademark almost, an entire vocabulary of art,” says Elizabeth Brown, one of the curators of the show, organized by the Washington State University Museum of Art.
Along with Andy Warhol’s soup cans, Lichtenstein’s one-dimensional, primary-colored works became the dominant symbols of the Pop movement, easily comprehended vehicles for clear transmission of what it was: the rejection of Abstract Expressionism and the elevation of popular-culture ideas to high-art status.
What observers fail to realize about Lichtenstein—who’s most familiar to them through the volume of mass-produced greeting cards, calendars and the like—is that he stopped making the comics paintings more than 30 years before his death in 1997. His importance and influence took on dimensions that far outstripped those early paintings.
As Brown’s catalog essay points out, Lichtenstein’s work is deceptively straightforward, and famous for conveying many layers of meaning beneath a simple surface. You could, for example, easily interpret his signature use of benday dot patterns as Pop irony—celebrating the superficial and banal, emphasizing the cheap mechanical reproduction methods with which comics were produced. But they’re also exercises in pattern painting and wry commentaries on the artistic process.
Although artists have made objects in editions for centuries, the idea of multiples became an emblem of the Pop group, a way of democratizing art. Lichtenstein, originally trained as a printmaker while attending Ohio State on the GI Bill, found it a fruitful outlet for his genius. Notable inclusions in the Block’s show are numerous pieces from both the “Haystacks” and “Cathedral” series, which Lichtenstein called his “manufactured Monets.” Just as the Impressionist painter did versions of his subjects at different times of day and in different light, Lichtenstein’s take on his subjects involves varying colors and images. With his signature benday patterns, he manipulated and stretched the standard four-color method for printing pictures, emphasizing the handwrought flourishes inherent in the screen-printing process.
The “Haystacks” and “Cathedrals” pieces also belong to a major area of Lichtenstein’s portfolio in which he commented on other works of art and artistic movements. Sometimes he referenced his own work, but more often that of famous artists (Picasso, Mondrian) and contemporaries (Sol LeWitt, Sam Francis and Donald Judd). Block curator Debora Wood points out that Lichtenstein is responsible in small or large part for several attributes that characterize nearly every work of art of the second half of the 20th century. These include the appropriation of images and techniques; working in a series; and the kind of free-ranging, experimental approach to media that helped many artists jump among various modes of expression. And this says nothing of his influence on graphic design. Or how today’s increasingly sophisticated digital-design technologies make his stylistic techniques easily accessible: Even the most basic photo-manipulation program lets you play games with benday dot patterns.
“Roy Lichtenstein” is on exhibit at the Block through June 17.