CHICAGO — The Roy Lichtenstein exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) is everything a retrospective should be. It takes an incontrovertibly significant artist, assembles art from all phases of his career, includes well-known and less well-known works and tries to make the case for an oeuvre, as opposed to a succession of unconnected objects. If you like Lichtenstein’s work, you will love this show. If you don’t — well, I’m not sure if there is such a person, so iconic and beloved is Lichtenstein, the father of Pop Art.
In fact, that familiarity is the only thing that might present a problem for the show, in that our preconceived ideas about Lichtenstein might obscure what we are actually looking at. When we see ‘Whaam!”, the 1963 painting of a fighter jet and an exploding missile, we experience something similar to looking at any famous painting, such as Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” or Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa”: it’s hard to see the real painting before us rather than the accumulation of cultural meanings, not to mention the dollar signs now attached to these artists’ work.
The AIC curators cleverly address this head on in the first room. Visitors are greeted by “Look Mickey,” the 1961 painting said to be the beginning of the dot-based comic-book style, but this leads immediately into a gallery entitled “Early Abstractions and Late Brushstrokes,” in which paintings from the very first and last decades of the artist’s life hang side by side on the walls. The comparison is apt: the paintings from the early to mid-1950s are collections of different kinds of painted marks and formal arrangements of shapes, and the late paintings consist of flat shapes and bold outlines overlaid by broad impasto marks zigzagging across the canvas, setting up a contrast between the idea of machine-like impersonality and the traditional evidence of the artist’s hand. The first room also introduces the juxtapositions that run throughout the show, and hence Lichtenstein’s career: flatness versus depth, comic-book style versus “real” painting, abstraction versus reality, quotation versus originality, dot versus line, the popular art of “now” and its relation to art history.
Undoubtedly, most people will come to this show to see “Whaam!”, the “Oh, Jeff” painting and the Explosions and Brushstrokes paintings, all of which continue to delight with their deadpan humor and the visual shock of seeing cartoonish images rendered in handmade strokes of oil paint on canvas. I was also struck by the Black and Whites, in which Lichtenstein’s rendering of commonplace objects in the dirty gray tones of cheap newsprint pushed his art as close as it ever came to standing in for the object it appropriated. There is a room of drawings, from early expressionist ink daubs to studies for some of the famous works, which makes you realize that Lichtenstein prepared for the big canvases in the time-honored way, by trying out arrangements of certain shapes and colors in sketches first. Perhaps the most unexpected objects on display are a set of bathroom fixtures made from brass, glass and mirror, which were a one-off commission from the 1960s and look like a cross between art deco furnishings and a painting by Fernand Léger.
Léger is just one of the artists Lichtenstein turned to when he tried to use his style to talk to (or colonize) images by painters he admired. There’s a room filled with Benday-dot versions of Picasso, Monet, Braque, Mondrian and Matisse, and a magnificently awful picture called “Laocoon,” in which, for no apparent good reason, Lichtenstein tried out this ancient classical subject in a huge canvas covered with disconnected, jarringly discordant colors. Thankfully, Lichtenstein left this period fairly quickly and spent the years leading up to his death in 1997 making measured variations on his 1960s discoveries. These late paintings are very formal. The bright humor of the early Pop Art paintings is replaced by arrangements and rearrangements of vertical lines, diagonal lines, areas of dots against areas of stripes — quotations from art history bumping up against the contents of the artist’s studio.
It’s a familiar pattern in a great artist’s work: A significant initial discovery causes a disruption in existing ways of painting; the artist himself finds it so sufficiently disturbing that he eventually makes an accommodation with the art that preceded him. In the case of Lichtenstein, he carved open the pathway from painting to popular culture (a path that has been worn pretty bare since), and then in his later years developed a language that is almost a purely abstract patterning of shape and color. This is another reason to have a retrospective — to put the subject in the context of what came before and after. It’s a function that this exhibition fulfills admirably.
Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 South Michigan Ave., Chicago) through September 3.