Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Pop Sensation: 'Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective' Connects the Dots with Intriguing Depth - Art Exhibition Review

Art Exhibition Review

Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective
Art Institute of Chicago
Thru September 3

Walking through the Art Institute's terrific, career-spanning Roy Lichtenstein exhibition--which calls itself the "first major retrospective to broadly examine his art since his death" (in 1997)--struck me as being somewhat akin to watching The Simpsons.

In saying this, I'm only slightly referencing the cartoon-like qualities of Lichtenstein's Pop Art paintings, especially his early '60s replications
of comic book panels.

For it's been my experience that--even without understanding many of the jokes or references--young kids love Homer, Bart, Marge, Lisa, etc. because of the animation, the way they look, the funny sounds they make, etc. But adults--excepting those grumps who dismiss it as juvenile--appreciate The Simpsons on another level, because they "get" (some more than others) the gags and allusions.

As simply eye candy (though well beyond for those who can appreciate his points of reference), Lichtenstein's works should have similar multi-generational appeal. Just as I was viscerally wowed by the surface-level whimsy--especially in the "War and Romance" gallery of comic book imagery--kids of all ages will conceivably be captivated.

If nothing else, the New York native's paintings are pretty and witty and bright. Even if critics in the early '60s might have dismissed them as simplistic and derivative of commonplace sources--per the exhibition's wall text, in 1964 Life magazine asked "Is he the worst artist in the U.S.?"--Lichtenstein created works of art that are enjoyable to look at.

If "great art" is only to be judged as such based on degree of technical difficulty, Lichtenstein--and similarly Warhol, who I also like--clearly can't compare with Raphael, Rubens or Seurat. Though beautiful in their own way, his paintings don't have an equal aesthetic richness.

But in my opinion, "great art" is whatever you think it is, and for me, originality and "curb appeal" weigh heavily into the equation. No one I'm aware of created artwork that looked like Lichtenstein's before Roy did, and even if enlarging a comic book panel might not seem that artistically strenuous, just in the galleries of early Pop Art gems, there's plenty more than meets the eye.

Lichtenstein always reworked his source images; they weren't simply duplications of comic book panels or advertistments. As he's quoted on the wall text, "I was interested in using highly charged material, like Men at War and Love comics, in a very removed, technical, almost engineering drawing style."

Although for me, strolling through the "War and Romance" gallery felt like walking through a giant comic book, which is why I believe kids should love it too--do they still read comic books?--as the exhibition text points out, Lichtenstein's paintings "look even more like comic images than the comics themselves."

And especially when taken in sum, one can see that through his depictions of chagrined lovers, affected art patrons and wartime exploits, as well as household objects like radios and washing machines, Lichtenstein was providing modern social commentary while not only capturing but defining a moment in time.

But while the "War and Romance" gallery, which includes works from 1961-1966, is the "Oh, wow!" centerpiece of the exhibition, those of us who appreciate art a bit more deeply--like adults watching The Simpsons--will find plenty to fascinate throughout the entire span of the retrospective (primarily 1960-97, but with examples going back to 1951).

Reflecting Lichtenstein's statement that "the things that I have apparently parodied, I actually admire," the "Art History" gallery features his unique interpretations of works by Picasso--the painting at left references this one, which itself apes one by Delacroix--Monet, de Kooning, Mondrian and others.

I particularly smiled at Still Life With Goldfish, because not only does it reference a painting by Matisse that is similar to some shown at a recent Art Institute exhibition, but the original and the homage were featured last month on my FACE 2 FACE: The Masterpieces Comparison wall calendar.

The "Art History" gallery, as well as the "Artist's Studios" gallery--which features four Lichtenstein works that reference old European studio interior paintings showing an artist's workspace with various canvases strewn about--illustrate just how astute a scholar of art Roy Lichtenstein was.

And even though virtually every one of the exhibition's 170+ paintings is instantly identifiable as "a Lichtenstein"--excepting a few early stabs at abstract expressionism before he hit upon Pop Art with 1961's "Look Mickey"--the retrospective impressively conveys how many different themes and styles the artist explored across his career.

I haven't watched much of The Simpsons in recent seasons, but when I have I've been struck by how much has remained familiar but also has changed over the years. I haven't been as routinely captured as I was during the early years, but there is still much to like, with varying degrees of depth (many likely beyond me).

Similarly, Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective--which runs through Labor Day--will most overtly pull you in with the works he created before 1966. These are still the greatest hits. But perhaps just as much, if not more so, it is what the perfectly-curated exhibit reveals well beyond Lichtenstein's rise to fame--including, along with the aforementioned, his wryly intriguing takes on Art Deco, nudes, landscapes, mirrors and more--that will not just open your eyes, but truly make them "pop."

Drowning Girl

Ohhh, Alright

Sunrise, 1965 (below)

Artist's Studio, "Foot Medication" - 1974 (Poster shown)

1 comment:

Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein said...


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