Roy Lichtenstein gets the grand treatment at Art Institute
BY KEVIN NANCE May 13, 2012 9:36PM
Up-close viewing of Roy Lichtenstein’s cartoon-panel paintings — including “Masterpiece” from 1962 — reveals many imperfections, perhaps intentional ones. | © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
◆ May 22 through Sept. 3 (now in previews for members)
◆ Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan
◆ $18 ($12 for seniors, students and children 14 and older; children under 13 free)
◆ (312) 443-3626; www.artinstituteofchicago.org
Updated: June 15, 2012 10:50AM
At its best, Pop art simultaneously critiqued the culture of mass production and revealed just how weirdly beautiful its products could be, if you bothered to look at them closely enough — and if, maybe, you gave them a few tweaks on the easel. Andy Warhol’s soup cans are the best-known example, except that he wasn’t much for easels; he left that to Roy Lichtenstein.
It was the latter — as amply demonstrated in “Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective,” the big, beguiling and oh-so-smart new show at the Art Institute of Chicago — who was the true prince of Pop: the deepest thinker, the wickedest joker and by far the most legitimate painter. Unlike Warhol, who appropriated not only the output of mass production but its techniques as well, Lichtenstein did it all by hand, laying down all those endless rows of dots with the patience — and some of the strategic genius — of Seurat. (If you’ve only seen Lichtenstein’s work in reproduction, you might be surprised by how non-pristine much of it is here, filled with the small imperfections he seems to have reveled in.)
Pop wants to borrow, glorify and transcend, even as it mocks, and Lichtenstein (1923-1997) was the master of having it both ways. This is most evident in his early, often monumental black-and-white images of mundane objects such as sneakers, a composition notebook and, best of all, “Tire” (1962), a graphic, high-contrast oil painting of a tire — yes, a tire — so strangely exquisite that you long to possess it, if not attach it to your axle. Later in the show, his landscapes are accomplished in a way meant to point out the simplifications and shortcuts of commercial graphics and printing, which doesn’t prevent us from experiencing, as the artist also intends, a vestige of the sublime produced by the best landscape painting. Neat trick!
Most viewers will be especially keen to see the author’s famous cartoon-panel paintings, which send up and transform the bosom-heaving heroines and testosterone-fueled war heroes of mid-20th-century comics, elevating them to the status of some of American art’s greatest (and funniest) icons. The speech balloons still make us laugh out loud. “I don’t care!” pouts “Drowning Girl” (1963), who seems to be lost in a detail from a Hokusai print; “I’d rather sink — than call Brad for help!” Oh, just drown already, will you? Brad’s probably moved on to some other chick anyway.
Later in his career, Lichtenstein traded up in his source material, larking about with Monet, Picasso, Mondrian and the abstract expressionists, among others. Here, generally, he’s engaging with his betters rather than his inferiors; the dynamic of the work shifts from critique toward homage, which isn’t his forte. But the energy and spark of the early ’60s return in the witty abstract paintings of the “Perfect/Imperfect” series (1978-1989), which responds less to pre-existing art than to Lichtenstein’s native humor and his original gift for color and composition. He could have done anything. And so, for better or worse, he did everything.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago free-lance writer.