PRINT April 1984


ROY LICHTENSTEIN'S TEMPORARY SITE-SPECIFIC MURAL on the long north wall of Leo Castelli’s Greene Street gallery was welcome relief in a generally dreary season, but more importantly it reasserted all the vital signs of Lichtenstein’s art. The piece was gigantic, nimble, an elixir. Making the neo-x’s scale for scale’s sake seem gratuitous, its size (18 feet high and nearly 100 feet long) rendered it almost an abstraction, since the gallery’s relative narrowness and free-standing columns impeded the sustained lateral sweep needed for a simultaneous reading of so enormous a compendium of motifs. Instead, ambient viewing conditions made for “framed” vertical stripes of imagery and a rhythm of jump cuts. The “impediments,” including the crowds strolling back and forth in almost beachlike glee, contributed finally to the sense of animation.

A definite beginning and end were established in the work, but the speed of the middle was so ferocious that it called for several slow reverses, instant replays, and fast forwards for any real comprehension. Even then there were no “I get it” balloons rising from the spectatorial mouths, rather just “wows.” (Pop is the original multiple choice.) The leftmost, opening frame was a strip of Art Deco abstraction, scaled physically to cover a pilaster in the gallery. In its colors this endpaper set the neoplastic publicity pitch of the whole piece—a world of primaries, and for the most part a tidy one, with red, yellow, and blue each staying within black bounds. Bare expanses of the white wall reinforced a sense of the ease with which the mural had been accomplished, the paint very thin, almost insouciant. At the piece’s far end was its lone figure: a Picassoid female bust, eyes looking toward the elegant cacophony preceding her.

Given the variety of art-historical conundrums in many of Lichtenstein’s other recent paintings (a number were presented at Castelli’s West Broadway gallery concurrently with the mural), the small number of referents such as this bust to an esthetic past was noteworthy. Adjusting the common denominator of meaning this way made the piece all the more a billboard of Pop—ditto its transience. Lichtenstein generously offered up his witty cannibalized morsels as the most engaging way to sate the common appetite for truisms. Mechanically reproduced images were mechanically re-reproduced, and everything was true because Pop is neutral—the only translucent style.

From the left, a big funnel lying at the base of an even larger pyramid set off the mural’s mixed tenses. Time superseded space. A full-height, red, brushstrokelike smear gave the hand its 15 minutes of celebrity before segueing into a blurry black and white weave pattern; lapping over the weave was a blue ruffled edge that shifted rightward to a lighter rippling blue gray. A thin slice of diagonal black stripes was the pause that refreshed before a section of the black and white malachitelike mottling from Lichtenstein’s Compositions, 1964, and atop and beyond it a tangle of interlocking diagonals, the simplified shards of hard-won Dutch, Spanish, and French “space” ca. 20th century. Enough earnestness: a curvaceous skein of red ben-day dots spilled down at the 50-yard line.

There were fewer intellectual feints in the second half. Fast forward: compositionally, the pictures opened up; enlargement and fragmentation, the hallmarks of Modernism, were infected with the surrealism of American wholesomeness. Slow reverse: white file folders met at the horizon with a sky of bright yellow Swiss cheese. The large white folding chair in this landscape was not as hospitable as Matisse’s fauteuil, but it was a place to rest. The swath of blue mirrors to the chair’s right was a note of self-conscious reflectiveness before the final still life passages.

The biggest element in the panorama, a muscularly knotted red cord, was shared by two panels: an envelope, a lampshaded light bulb, and a brush or truncated garbage pail, all enclosed by a yellow curtain at right, were pulled together to their left with an interior featuring a file cabinet. If everything but the kitchen sink had appeared so far, I took the schematized resting Brancusi head for just such a bowl. (Why the conveniently neighboring roll of toilet paper?) Miss Picasso 1950–70 was a nice window on the world, the requisite painting within a painting; the stack of louvered vents or blinds above her was Lichtenstein’s only obvious concession to locale, the slats moving up toward the gallery’s sloping rear skylight, aerating all this stuff. Significance could gracefully flutter out the windows and back to the supermarket shelves and adverts from which it was pinched. The blue-bordered demoiselle was also a bemused reminder of Lichtenstein’s ambitions. With Robert Venturi, he understood before anyone else the outlines of a new era, one that fancies itself “post” but is more likely to be thought of as “intra.”

Allan Kaprow once likened Lichtenstein’s work to a language of mementos, suggesting an analogy to Muzak—“music not listened to but felt as familiar background.” We both see and feel Lichtenstein’s work; that we are at home with it is inarguable. As an artist he has never reverted to the shock value of the various urban primitives at the center of New York art for the last thirty-five years. Lichtenstein came on the scene as a master and has remained an unapologetic one. He is the person who has kept the neutral style neutral. This mural may have been the first Muzak symphony; certainly, it was one of the few recent downtown behemoths that was not a dinosaur. It fit.

Richard Armstrong writes regularly for Artforum.