PRINT January 1968

Lichtenstein’s Sculpture

BY NOW THE ENTIRE art world must know that Roy Lichtenstein’s recent exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery was painting and sculpture’s answer to Bonnie and Clyde. Lichtenstein has discovered, or, rather, re-discovered the thirties and cleverly adumbrated its “period” taste in commercial and applied art. Lichtenstein’s new paintings suggest a kind of Flo Ziegfeld Cubism, with their spectacular array of primary colors and circles, curves, triangles, rectangles, and lines, lines, lines—a modish recapitulation of the jazzy, sans serif geometry of the Depression (Depression?) era, while his sculpture revamps, far more successfully than the paintings, a hand-me-down Bauhaus style to emerge a de-ritualized but brightly ornamental Constructivism. In both, so apparent is the romanticization of the sensibility of another era, that I was reminded of the disciples of David who went prancing around in togas.

However, like Bonnie and Clyde, and unlike an authentic revival, Lichtenstein’s works are not interpretations of an historical epoch but a fantasy about it. Bonnie and Clyde is basically a kind of bourgeois hippie fairy tale. But where the sickness of the fantasy that inspired a remarkable film is redeemed by the vividness of its evocation as myth, most of Lichtenstein’s work—there are, as I shall show, significant exceptions—fails to generate sufficient visual power to overcome the Pop tendency to simulate both a regressive fantasy and its anti-heroic redemption. This I think has more or less always been the case with Lichtenstein’s paintings. They neither risk morbidity nor overcome their taste. Thus Lichtenstein’s excursion into sculpture is portentous. For one thing it follows the pattern established by a number of painters who found they could no longer find answers to their problems in two-dimensional art and turned to sculpture. Lichtenstein’s new sculptures suggest primary structures in its Rococo. But more importantly his successful sculptures are, to my mind, the best, and the most serious things that he has done, serious in the sense that they recognize an issue of current sensibility—a will to decoration—without resorting to parody. Lichtenstein presents what is basically ornament as an autonomous object. It is a more elegant, less monumental kind of ornament than that of the simplistic school of structure sculpture. Lichtenstein combines brass, aluminum, marble and tinted glass into ghosts of functional objects, for like primary structures his sculptures evoke utility but do not evoke the object that was useful.

The best of Lichtenstein’s sculptures (Modern Sculpture with Three Discs, and, with some reservations, Modern Sculpture No. 2, in the recent show, and Modern Sculpture, shown at the Castelli Gallery in a group exhibition late last season) resemble items of furniture, though exactly what kind one cannot say. These are also the ones whose structure (shape) is consistent with an ornamental, as opposed to a partially parodistic, inspiration which creeps into the lesser pieces. In the lesser works, the resemblances to Constructivism and to some works by David Smith through certain planar, linear and/or pictorial similarities, seem more pronounced than in the successful ones, perhaps because they evoke too strongly the same sort of corrupt and stylized Cubism that was commercially exploited in the thirties. I’m not sure what this implies about Smith or Constructivism but in any event the similarities are due not to any specific influence by other artists but to a common Cubist heredity.

Indeed the Cubist sources of Lichtenstein’s art have never been more evident, and they help to explain both his successes as a sculptor and his failures as a painter. Cubism in Lichtenstein’s sculpture evokes the volume the challenge of which his paintings never accepted. This materializes in the paintings as a structure, derived from Cubism proper, that declares a seriousness which is neither confirmed nor fulfilled by the inherent playfulness of shapes that were, as I have said, basically corrupt Cubist shapes to begin with. In their original form these shapes were meant to be decorative in the applied sense, but they result in ensembles which cannot be rationalized as Cubist or decorative because there has been no struggle with volume, no real effort to interpret volume in two-dimensional terms. The motifs were either a priori flat or simple geometric signs abstracted from volumetric forms. Structure becomes too easy and therefore unconvincing as invention. The impression is, consequently, that the pictures cannot make up their mind whether they are a serious new kind of abstraction or a new kind of abstract Pop.

Still, the paintings aspire to the same decorative mode that is realized in a few of the sculptures. So their failure must also have another explanation. It is, I think, that by turning to the decorative style of the thirties, Lichtenstein hoped to circumvent the entire development from Cubism to post painterly abstraction, to make will resemble evolution. Inhibited by the very nature of his style from developing formally, Lichtenstein had to fired a “subject” or, as it were, a “style” that would facilitate the realization of a desire for a more decorative art. The effect of this in his new paintings especially is devastating. They are visually quite lifeless. Along with the lesser works of sculpture, they receive such vitality as they have less from within themselves as from a shock of recognition, that is, from the recognition that one “period” sensibility is exploiting another. It converts the present into a “period” rather than enters into a broader esthetic flow. It is not the channel but the buoy marking it.

I confess this raises certain doubts in my mind about even the best of the sculptures. The contrast between success and failure is so great and the failures so prevail that I wonder at there being any exceptions at all. But perhaps the contrast is not that great. One of the first things I noticed when I walked into the gallery was that the paintings were framed in ordinary wood lathe. Probably its contrast with the glistening metals and glass was that great. And if it did not actually trivialize the paintings, it emphasized their shortcomings by failing to support, by contradicting in fact, a taste that was, on the face of it, plainly outgrowing, or tiring with, a completely schismatic relationship with banality. I’m not overjoyed by most Bauhaus precepts or camp evocations of “moderne” but it’s something of an improvement over comic strips. Thus I found myself imagining what the effect would be if the paintings had been framed by the sculpture, or its equivalent. I suspect then that my vestigial doubts about the sculpture have to do with a suspicion that they are somehow limited, that perhaps a failure in two-dimensions cannot be redeemed by a success in three. Frank Stella’s astounding confirmation of his decorative propensities in an exhibition which followed Lichtenstein’s in the same gallery, and a decorative propensity moreover that assimilated a thirties feeling for design rather than resembled it hardly strengthens the case for Lichtenstein.

Last but not least there are the considerations raised by Lichtenstein’s new tack. Heretofore Lichtenstein and Pop artists generally have confined themselves to their own time, expending their conscious or unconscious gifts for parody upon objects from our present culture. Now Lichtenstein’s inspiration, epitomizing a currently fashionable one in film, window dressing, fashion, interior decoration and even economic contrasts, is an aspect of a previous style. In other words the nostalgia that was implicit in Pop art’s ironically primitivist courtship of vulgar taste is now explicit and free to perform openly in the style. The first sign was a readjustment of the parodistic aspect of Pop.

However, this not only releases Pop art from its dependency on representational elements, not an unmixed blessing, it has in effect enabled Lichtenstein to go abstract. What this says about the future of Pop I cannot be sure. Clement Greenberg is reported to have said that Lichtenstein has proved that abstraction painting is fashionable again, presumably after having been eclipsed for a time by both Pop art and primary structures. Even if he didn’t say it, it is a shrewd remark. We may be about to experience the swan song of Pop art as we have so far known it.

Sidney Tillim