Los Angeles

Roy Lichtenstein

Irving Blum Gallery

That Roy Lichtenstein’s backs of canvases are something of a throwback to an earlier approach comes initially both as a relief and a vague disappointment, weary as we are on the one hand of ’30s moderne, and, on the other, secretly expectant of yet another delectable surprise. But one can only account to himself for secretly indulged tastes up to a point, and Lichtenstein, it now appears, is clever enough to measure out his soft insults with reserve. The new works, of which the Irving Blum Gallery shows six, are basically dot paintings in only three colors, black, white and yellow. They are severer and slightly more monotonous than any other series, though there is a general relationship to the old “Parthenon” image. The “Brushstrokes,” being similarly “formal,” and similarly isolating a ubiquitous painterly appearance for the sake, partially, of ridicule, are more full of conceit and less “disciplined” than the present works. Since these paintings are so restricted in format, subject and color, they might be viewed together as a serial exercise (to say a formal exercise is funnier, but less exact), and perhaps, in their light, one reconsiders the justness of those who early insisted upon Lichtenstein’s overriding concern for “abstract composition” as opposed to subject in the comic strip paintings.

The size of these paintings is always commensurate with the number of horizontal and vertical cross bars (indicated with bright yellow paint). The smallest canvas is square and undivided, and there is one bisected vertically, one trisected, two have six rectangular divisions, the largest (102 by 48 inches) is a diptych. The shadows cast by the supporting slats are consistently located to the left or top of the cross bars. The edges are white, framing the canvases, lined with heavy curved lines at the inside boundaries. Thus the appearance of stretched canvas, stapled around the edge of the rear of the outer support and left irregular, is not only indicated but becomes the most dynamic and assertive compositional element. Turning the works around, one finds that their actual, unpainted backs echo their fronts, with the cross bars, real and simulated, corresponding almost exactly.

As satirical statements, the works are triumphant: for one thing, it will be difficult after them to talk in earnest support of the support. Besides, two of them—Stretcher Frame with Cross Bars IV and V—are identical in size and very nearly in configuration, but not in orientation: one measures 68 by 56 inches, the other 56 by 68, the implication being, of course, that they are as good or bad or indifferent in the vertical as in the horizontal, which is quite true. (Upside down, they don’t work right.) Actually Lichtenstein has chosen to avoid gross metaphorical exaggeration with the back: of-the-canvas idea, excepting that the dots have reference in its context to canvas weave. This incident might be thought his ultimate self-parodying coup de théâtre—perhaps he’s wanted to arrive at this all along. The question of “abstract” success is just not discussable. Whether these paintings mark Lichtenstein as more than a better-than-average psychologist, in terms at least of timing and temperance, or a swell satirist, or an esthete’s esthete, it may be too soon to tell. For myself, I would say they’d go great in a black and white and blue room.

Jane Livingston