PRINT November 1969

Roy Lichtenstein at the Guggenheim

I CAN STILL REMEMBER Ivan Karp’s “take-this-if-you-dare” look, as he hauled out, face backward, a number of canvases which were to be my first Lichtensteins. How was a guileless critic to know in that distant year (1962), that he would be confronted by what was quickly to become a grand trademark of sixties art? The subjects, the identities of those pictures have passed from my mind, but not their acid shock. To drink in those images was like glugging a quart of quinine water followed by a Listerine chaser. And there was, too, the fierce disbelief that anything so brazen as these commercial icons could have found their way on to prepared and stretched canvas. The very gallery seemed defiled by some quack churl who couldn’t, or didn’t, adhere to the idea of painting as an easel art. For this was a comic strip and mail-order world that unliveably refused to stay in place, one that would scream down any poor victim of an artifact, work of art, or person unluckily caught within its optical range. And now the Guggenheim Museum retrospects Lichtenstein at the end of the sixties before an audience who regards him as classic as well as contemporary, intellectual as well as risible. Long ago, what’s more, his brand had entered thousands of homes, bannered and postered into our consciousness as the exhilarating paradigm of a “with it” generation. No less of the past, the chemistry of my own discontent had bubbled off, leaving the most sanguine appetite for his product. It’s not that Lichtenstein had somewhere receded into “art,” but that art was redefined.

Doubtless, the stylistic mischief once raised by Pop, with Roy at its forefront, had much to do with this. There’s no need to emphasize the importance of stylistic reversal and extension—even into the most unlikely realms—as a factor of the way we re-educate ourselves to everything innovating in art. And Pop art gave itself so completely to stylization that a new content was pressed out of its embrace with the media. Gone are the symposia which thrashed about and wrangled over whether this work could be considered simply . . . art!! Its mimicry of its sources, the Sunday supplement, the billboard, the teen romances, etc., short-armed quite a few who objected to the subjects . . . who craved the expressive . . . who demanded the transformed. And I should have thought it redundant, now, to espouse overmuch Lichtenstein’s formalism. He talked form in the early days, possibly to calm down the flak. Today he’s almost thought to be a composer in the vein of the emblematic abstractionists who developed concurrently, and shared certain devices, with him. A weird back-handed sort of honor. No, his redefining of art more likely locates itself in his rewrite and scrambling of our perceptive habits, for which his subject and the style (most often they’re the same thing), are translucent alibis.

For instance, there is something linguistically depraved about the behavior of his overused images, which flatten out with all their kinks and corruptions retained and magnified. He pays homage to the clichés of a visual argot ponied by all sorts of uncomprehending middlemen, whether they be art directors, product designers, or commercial illustrators. From this emerges such a rhetoric of error compounded by error, that Lichtenstein might be considered a specialist in impurities, an art-for-art’s sake artist in reverse. Here, the notorious ben-day dots are archetypal. At first they’re stitched in daintily as a timid half-tone. Later they want to give different kinds of tactile and color information, and don’t mind becoming bumptiously decorative in the process. Still later, they get clustered in differing ratios for the purpose of imitating grainy photo printing. Though Lichtenstein himself hardly misconstrues their purpose, his dot-screens are shot through with multi-functions and misalliances. This atomized matter magnetizes into cast shadows or measles, so that the illusionistic conventions at work in his art occasionally threaten to break down into a series of homeless blips. Sometimes I tend to think of them as punctuation marks migrating across sinuous diagrams, an obtuse counterpoint to the “action.” Often, in his landscapes, they are mechanical jujubes sitting all over, as if they had taken out squatter’s rights on the sky. In We Rose Up Slowly, an underwater scene, their crude veiling contrives only to look like several runs in stockings. A work called Non-Objective Painting blatantly coarsens with a dotted half-tone what otherwise passes for a reproduction of a Mondrian. By accepting the limitations of only the cheapest mechanical printing, Lichtenstein restricts himself to a kind of basic visual English. In an important sense, the schematic contrast between inarticulate and inflexible materials, and the implicitly more complex passages, phenomena, and volumes they represent, is Lichtenstein’s subject. Or rather, his stock in trade. From the inadequacies of rotogravure, he mines a rich sensory confusion.

The same might be said about his attack on the linear mannerisms of comic strip draftsmen. Tentacles of hair, leaves of fire, crevices of shadow, these are but some of the unintended metaphors that sprout in his scaled-up and hardened view of the funnies. It’s curious that while on one hand he particularizes the emotive handling in this kind of drawing, on the other, he generalizes its perceptual capacities. A girl’s tresses and the pushed, bristled paint of a giant brushstroke, are executed with a similar line. We know very well what a glint of metal looks like in the comics; we’re less accustomed to see the same linear motif appear in an area of a “Picasso.” In everything he does, Lichtenstein designs that we catch him red-handed, the better to show the interchangeability of his elements. The carapace of such degraded line freezes all possibility of personal touch and spontaneous pressure, one of the reasons for the acceptability of its hysterical subject. Hyped and hoked up on Roy’s inflated terms, it comes alive as a slow, florid overgrowth of sensation. Though each object still conventionally reads as what it is, it tends to lose its symbolic leavening, and lifts off, freely created in its own right.

I used to think he was infatuated with violence. And I will not, even now, absolve him from an exquisite spite. Pop art would have yielded such aggression, in any event, if only because it absorbs into itself trans-continental kitsch, phallic dreams of national glory. And these are positively barbaric. But such violence can be attributed neither to individual taste nor a didactic intent. True, it exists for Oldenburg, as a kind of organic alarm which can only be exorcised by detumescing the whole environment. Lichtenstein is more removed. Along with, or even before Godard, he had been responsible for magnifying that lethal kid stuff into an obsessive talisman of the cold war. He may be less of an anarchist than the Frenchman, but he is as much a revolutionary technician. The baroque cinema of the comics, their combination of words and visuals, are mutually explored by the two men. In contrast, Warhol’s is a literal transcription of the media, more sexual in surface than in energy, which numbly documents our disasters. In each of these men, violence is a declension of falsity (be it primitive or glamorous), sundered even from the reflecting mirrors of the real.

Lichtenstein’s filter of this falsity is the most directed and consistent. That is why he can be the most nominally lurid of modern artists. Iconographically, the Guggenheim show is studded with belligerent themes sterilely processed. Air warfare, explosions, six-guns, that sort of thing. But it is equally replete with classical temples, kitchen items, sunsets. The Dionysiac motifs are corseted, tamed and deflated, by the mechanistic form. But the “Apollonian” ones never looked so brutal. In other words, rigid though it seems, Lichtenstein’s style is pliant enough to project something of the affective opposite upon that which it portrays. And this is due to a genius for displacement rather than any accommodation of technique. I wonder, in the end, if his simplifications don’t convey an ultimate form of violence. The more tongue-tied and self-denying he is, the more sensational his revelations.

Much is known about Lichtenstein’s ambivalence toward his content. Given the narrative aspects of his painting, this might almost have been expected. But his sculpture, whether on the wall or the floor, stands free as self-contained imagery, an exclusive vehicle for style. In addition to being the most de-politicized area of his work, it’s also the most paradoxical, for the reason, now, that illusion is left behind. What impresses is the extent to which normally very transient phenomena or very specific artifacts have become abstracted. However slim or flat the volume of his sculptures, it demanded the most craven or the most elliptical conventions to make sense out of the three-dimensional object. How do you make tangible an explosion, or study the components of blast, except by the most outrageous petrifications? In the sense that such sculptural images seem snipped out of his paintings, they offer the same solutions as in his pictorial work; but to the degree that their immobility is much more explicit, they’re the most astonishing things he’s ever done. A sculptured explosion is a contradiction in terms. Actually, Lichtenstein has never shrunk from depicting conditions for which his form was the least plausibly adapted. What use is linear clarity in rendering light? To make something solid out of the ethereal, something opaque out of the transparent: these moments when form and subject work most abrasively against each other are the dramatic points of his career. The subtitle of his Rouen cathedral series, “seen at three different times of day,” is delightfully untrue. His two color schemes for these pictures resemble infra-red or ultra-violet versions of an Impressionism which they contravene almost on the level of being a “negative” of Monet. Similarly, the metal meshes in his explosions are negatives of the dots in his paintings. Nothing is more absurd than the way these tiered, shiny plaques,centered by little scalloped bursts, permanize the split-second . . . and yet, nothing is more winning.

Equally playful, although in a quite different vein, are the “Modern Sculptures” of the last two years, pendants of his “Modern Paintings.” They broach the problem of the take-off, the spoof, and the parody in Lichtenstein’s art. Let’s admit right away that for Lichtenstein, art within art is not a matter of deriving sanction from or gaining access to anything. It’s just that the tradition of “fine art” is as wonderfully, woefully “there” as the traditions of commercial culture—and both are legitimate prey for a vision that considers such material . . . nature. In this context, Lichtenstein has always been a “revivalist.” It means nothing and everything to say that he feeds off the given accoutrements of culture, high and low, old and new. Even when he invents a composition, he is not free from borrowing its style; and even when he is most derivative in style, he can be most authentic in thought. He gives as much as he gets, feeding back into the cultural mainstream, not so much comments, or précis or afterthoughts on his sources, but witty alternatives of looking “through” them—and by extension, at ourselves. The Cézanne, the Picasso, the Radio City modern bannisters and railings, these are simultaneously present and absent camouflages, that define the originality of Lichtenstein’s own historical moment. The latest of these allusions to thirties “Art Deco” purveys its own authority. Gilt and chromed trellises, circles, and ripples, welded to chevrons and stripes, stand stripped of their function, in pointless debonair pride. To see one of these long floor pieces in the foyer of the Guggenheim, however, is to realize how an ironic revival plays itself off as a foil against a “straight” one, within the same curvature of forms. “Modern Sculpture” . . . Guggenheim Museum . . . they’re no more modern than they are old. Their streamlining cuts through time as well as space, establishing our age as the empire of the Moderne. Just as he can metal-plate sheer outbreaking energy, so Lichtenstein typifies his “now” by grasping a past style’s dream of the future.

Yet the principle of choice for his visual cribs is not tied in with anything so definite as recurring nostalgia. Diverse as they are, these images have in common the fact that they’ve been overused, exhausted of interest for every audience except the one which can’t imagine them as the basis for making new art. Because current happenings are too “artistic,” Lichtenstein pre-dates his work. A time-gap operates to give his subjects a false period flavor of their own, and therefore exempts him from dependence on the topical. Not that he isn’t responsive to, or analytic of, his present situation. Preparedness, for instance, rehabilitates the WPA mural style (and scale), molds it into a forties subject, and executes it in comic strip technique, to afford an oblique, yet incisive glimpse of American Imperial society in 1969. Such is the chameleon-like sensibility behind the armorial schemata of this art. Oddly enough, his dedication to a final seriousness has kept Lichtenstein from essaying the combine painting or assemblage, as did practically every other Pop art colleague. Then too, an almost tender loyalty to the past, sparked by that urge for the permanent I’ve already mentioned, prevents him from indulging in the ritual gesture of self-destruction: ephemeral or disposable art.

In contrast to the slippery Oldenburg, and the mercurial passivity of Warhol, Lichtenstein looks to be a straight-laced type. The lack of nuance, the unwieldy public scale, and the often monumental theme (he has just completed a mammoth diagram of the pyramids) all contribute to the impression of a rather ponderous, if not a conservative attitude. Yet, what really kindles is the lightness of spirit within the discipline . . . and something else, a charming “who, me?” self-kidding that crops up with some regularity within his production. The man who asks us, “What do you know about my image duplicator?”, with his fierce gaze, only welcomes exposure, and invites us to join in the joke. And Lichtenstein has responded to his own fame, at the very inception of Pop, by having one of his lovelies mouth “Why Brad darling, this painting is a masterpiece! My, soon you’ll have all of New York clamoring for your work!” More abstractly coquettish now, as opposed to mock-deprecating, is Stretcher Frame, of 1968. For its facade pretends to be its back, and yet Lichtenstein shows that the dots alone are sufficient to “make” the picture. These are disarming games with the spectator, games whose content is the artist’s open acknowledgement of his artifice. They’re a reflection of Pop art’s social notoriety drawn back into his work, as if he were saying, quite rightly, that he has nothing to hide, that his devices are only his devices.

But Stretcher Frame, despite its illusion, is a quasi-abstract painting. By 1964, when he opened his art to full throttle, Lichtenstein must have understood something about the abstract potentialities of his vision. The zoned landscapes by themselves would have indicated the generalizing advantages of the dot technique stripped of imagery. If Dine, Rosenquist, Warhol and Oldenburg had demonstrated all manner of compositional affinities with systemic abstraction, Lichtenstein alone, and inevitably, has “represented” it. In this matter, his mockery, if you will, is quite theoretical, but his estheticism is quite practical. His affluent “Modern Sculptures” run laughably but not derisively abreast of Anthony Caro’s, whose overlooked forbears in Neo-Cubism Lichtenstein would remember. And with face-slapping scholarship, Roy makes explicit, in Modular Painting With 4 Panels, what Frank Stella owes to Delaunay. If it could be left at that, Lichtenstein would have to be accounted merely a frivolous scavenger. The trouble, the wonderful trouble, is that Modular Painting . . . is a masterpiece, of which Brad can be truly proud.

––Max Kozloff