“Lichtenstein: A Retrospective Retrospective” by Wesley Sun
“Impeccable sleight of hand is Lichtenstein’s revolutionary stance.” As far as I can tell, that sentence has no meaning whatsoever. And yet, printed on a wall at the Art Institute of Chicago, it serves as an introduction to Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective. The special exhibit, which opens to the public on May 22, was actually not something on my radar. But as comics creators ourselves, my brother Brad is always reminding me: you need to look at art when you’re making art. This led to him talking me into buying a membership at the Art Institute, which led to me wanting to get my money’s worth. I didn’t know much about Lichtenstein going in, but I had heard he was considered by some to be an influential pop artist and a visionary—and by others as an absolute hack. From the little I knew, I was pretty sure he was all three. But I was still left with what I take to be the most important question for an artist’s work: is it any good? Is it worth looking at? And is it something I’d pay money to see?
My interest in the guy perked up when Brad and I went to C2E2 a month back. One of the highlights for me was getting to hear comics giant Neal Adams go on about the infamy of Lichtenstein, right before telling an overzealous fanboy monster to sit down and shut up.
Though Adams didn’t like Lichtenstein, he still considered him pretty important, and that back-handed endorsement made me think I should be paying attention to his work. And since reading pretentious art nonsense like the phrase above makes me want to kill myself, I figured this exhibit was something I just needed to see with my own eyes. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one. When Brad and I arrived at the museum last Sunday they had beefed up security in anticipation of a crowd. After waiting in line, letting security rifle through my bag, and surrendering a banana, we were finally ready to check out Lichtenstein.
Lichtenstein, as I learned, is most famous for his work in the 1960s. Drawing from (and really, ripping off) the comic book artists of his time, Lichtenstein took pulp images from the comic book newsstand and brought them into the art gallery. The vast majority of his pieces are not sly nods or knowing winks, but intentional and blatant reproductions of specific panels from top artists. On occasion, he’ll make minor changes to the colors and word balloons, but he always leaves the basic composition and illustration—the lion’s share of the artistic process—as is. And because these alterations are so negligible, his work appears as little more than giant duplicates of his contemporaries. So on the one hand, yeah, Lichtenstein’s a hack and your money would be better spent reading an old comic book than it would be paying to see a Lichtenstein reproduction of an old comic book panel.
But to be fair, Lichtenstein does bring something novel to the table. Then as now (usually), comic artists compose their images by hand, then shrink them down in sequence to tell a story, after which it’s mass produced for public consumption. Lichtenstein, however, reverses the process. He selects a small, mass-produced panel in sequence and places it in isolation, to enlarge and illustrate by hand. What is most striking, when you get up close, is his hand-drawn “Ben-Day” dots. Because printers at the time weren’t capable of producing a spectrum of colors, comic books were colored by a dot matrix system—varying the shades of color by varying the space between the dots, and mixing colors by placing differently colored dots together. His imperfect, hand-drawn dots emphasize the printing limitations, whereas comic book creators were presumably trying to minimize them. And so his work does indeed have some originality. And I do in fact find Lichtenstein’s artwork—dots and all—very appealing, although it’s not clear to me that I would enjoy a blown-up image of an actual comic panel any less.
Art Spiegelman (the Maus guy) once commented that Lichtenstein “did no more or less for comics than Andy Warhol did for soup.” And here, I have to respectfully disagree. As Brad pointed out to me as we walked through the exhibit, Warhol elevated non-art objects into artistic pieces. Lichtenstein, by contrast, is perfectly content to take artwork and re-imagine it as … well, more artwork. To his credit, he does experiment at times by occasionally changing the medium. For example, one room in the exhibit is dedicated to his three dimensional representations of comic book explosions. Yet, despite how awesome that sounds, I found his 3D pieces less compelling than his comic book rip-offs, which are admittedly less compelling than the originals. In the end, I agree with what Neal Adams offered at C2E2—that Lichtenstein’s greatest contribution to the comics medium was forcing the world to see comics as what they always have been: pieces of art in their own right.
I think the real tragedy of Lichtenstein’s legacy is that I don’t hear many people talking about his later work. The exhibit concludes by displaying a room full of his work with nudes and the female form produced in the mid-90s, only a few years before his death in 1997. At first blush, it appears to be much like his art from the 60s—but with nipples. However, on further reflection the nudie room is actually something quite different for Lichtenstein. His references are no longer contemporary, but retro. And his fascination with the dots has changed significance completely. He’s no longer calling attention to a standard printing process (which of course is no longer in use), but rather creating interesting visual effects, compositions, and contrasts with a device that is rarely seen in comics today.
So, really, I’m left with this question—why is there so little discussion of the later Lichtenstein? Why is his work in the 60s seen as marking his greatest achievement, rather than as laying the groundwork for the naked time down the road? For me, the nudie room is the part of the exhibit that was most worth the trip and the ticket, but I didn’t even know it was there until it was almost over. Overshadowed by his more popular pieces, I suspect that for most this collection of his work is largely unknown or forgotten. What a shame—I think it’s his best stuff.