Roy Lichtenstein

Review of a Retrospective at the Seattle Art Museum
by J. Carlsson

Much of being a "New York Artist" is having a Love Affair with Paradox (Is it Art? Or is it About Art?)

I encountered this retrospective with certain knowledge in mind. One: Roy Lichtenstein became prominent in the 1960s for cartoon style paintings with subject matter from popular culture. Two: a debate rages in the philosophy of esthetics between what is called an ontological versus an epistemological reading of an art form — the image as a form in its own right versus the image as a sign for something else.

I have also often seen Lichtenstein's "Study for Vicki" in the permanent collection at the north end of the museum. It is a rough study in strong reds, blacks, and yellows for the cooler, more pristine and exact finished painting. The finished work has been distanced in precise composition an surface polish, but the study in its roughness is more immediate, more emotional in its feel and comparatively touching. It is just a cartoon image in solid colors and Benday dots of a slightly startled woman and the back of the head of a man who is saying, "Vicki! I — I thought I heard your voice." The mood it delineates is affecting because it rings true to the decade that created it, the 1960s.

The south wing contains the retrospective of the 1970s work. No studies here, only finished productions. And no popular imagery, only that which refers to the artist's physical and emotional environment, i.e., to his studio and to art history. Drafting lamps, paint brushes, fruit for still life, coffee cup and saucers, wine bottles — things that surround the artist, personal, day-to-day things — become part of the unconscious rhythm of the exhibit. They are self-reflexive images: they refer back to the self, like the numerous images of mirrors — the conduit of the self-portrait — which here reflect nothing but light. The mirror is seen as a "form," something in its own right, not as a conduit for something else. Yet here is where the paradoxes begin. To make a painting of a mirror — as if it were a communicant of consciousness — is to pay observance to it as a "motif." And to use it as symbol for the mental ability to self-reflect is to utilize it as a linguistic "sign." Once the mirror — as well as those other personal elements of the artist's environment — become self-consciously noted, all "meaning" becomes problematical, nothing can any longer be accepted unconsciously as "being."

The second set of motifs — the impersonal environment of art history — has a similar problematic effect. Once he mimics architectural entablatures and columns, once he analyzes as in "Cow Triptych" the historical progression for naturalistic painting, to analytic cubism, to synthetic cubism, once he gives us back Matisse's "The Dance" or any renowned image from purism, futurism, constructivism, or expressionism, how are we supposed to look on these Benday dot imitations? As translations? As art history analysis? As art critical discursiveness? And then, how are we supposed to look upon the originals? In short, what happens when these elements are brought to a conscious level?

In the 1960s Roy Lichtenstein distilled images out of the flux of popular culture and froze them as high culture — icons for the times he lived in. But in the 1970s, by taking the icons of past, and distilling them, he disrupted and broke down the mechanism of history — every icon becoming contemporary, every artist's studio becoming the idea and ideal of "the artist's studio," there no longer is a sense of past and future, and there no longer is a sense of high culture because elitism needs history to be able to see its productions as other than equally arbitrary commodities in the scheme of things.

Philosophy ends in language, and language ends in paradox. And if this retrospective seems a little dead, it is because with the distance and composure that delimit the world he inhabits, the artist has accurately represented that world and its issues. end

Roy Lichtenstein, 1970-1980 is reprinted with the author's permission from the Winter 1982 issue of Patio Table, an arcane black-and-white fold-up publication of the now-defunct group, Cityzens for Non-Linear Futures.


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