New York

Roy Lichtenstein

Castelli Gallery | Uptown

Roy Lichtenstein’s show at Castelli uptown was, for me, something of a disappointment. After his successive shows of the “Mirrors” and “Entablatures,” the new still-life paintings seem to be a retreat in the direction of the modern old master, Matisse in this case, done in comic-strip style. Matisse is everywhere in the new paintings, and where he isn’t, images from earlier stages of Lichtenstein’s career appear in the form of a Matisse device. Artist’s Studio is like a strange detail of Matisse’s The Red Studio complete with a comic-strip style Art Nouveau plant in a vase on a table in the foreground. The depicted paintings leaning against the wall are Lichtenstein’s rather than Matisse’s, specifically: the Lichtenstein/Picasso Still Life of 1964 is stacked behind Baseball Manager of 1963. On the depicted wall are Oval Mirror, Stretcher Frame With Crossbars, and an Entablature. The interesting part is the ambiguity of whether the Entablature and Mirror are there as wall molding and mirror or as painting. A similar confusion arises in the depicted stacked cups in the foreground, which are either stacked cups or Lichtenstein ceramics. Still Life With Stretcher, Mirror, and Bowl of Fruit presents the same ambiguities, and in a sense, brings the summation of Lichtenstein in terms of Matisse up to date, by including the bowl of fruit and cluster of grapes which become icons of the new paintings.

Beyond references to Matisse and his own earlier work, most of the paintings consist in jarring combinations of styles, and the introduction of representational elements new in Lichtenstein’s work. While the primary colors of his earlier work are present to some degree, they are joined in the new paintings by pastel colors such as light blue, and non-primary colors, such as brown, green, and purple. Various kinds of urns and pitchers are depicted by irregular amorphous black and white, or blue and white shapes reminiscent of the unusual and surprising shapes yielded in photo-Realist renderings of chrome surfaces. Another element introduced in these paintings is a ground, sometimes background, consisting of parallel alternating black and white lines. In Still Life With Crystal Goblet and Two Lemons, for example, the crystal goblet is painted through an intricate stencil cut in small triangular units. The goblet, then, is formed by a mass of black and white triangular shapes without the conventional black outline, but set against a solid black ground. The goblet of triangles is on a table of diagonal, parallel black and white lines, with two solid lemon yellow lemons outlined in black. The only other element in the painting is a solid yellow fragment of curtain on the left, indicated by a few fold lines outlined in black. The combination of all these kinds of elementary representational devices produces a painting out of which the elements appear to jump. The lemons, in particular, seem to “pop” out of the painting, metaphorically speaking, more to their disbelief than ours.

Where the paintings do not obviously refer to Matisse and early Lichtenstein, they seem to refer to Dutch still lifes. But all these references can be considered as being almost structural, or, as conventional representation situations within which the various depictive devices test the mechanism of reading combinations of lines and shapes as pictorial representations of objects. In these terms, a set of diagonal parallel lines can be a wall or a table simply by its position with respect to the other depicted elements in the painting; and a cluster of little black triangles gets read as a crystal goblet. Similarly, by appearing to be on what gets read as a table, a yellow circle with a black outline is read as a grapefruit; and conversely, by appearing to be under what can be read as a grapefruit, an area of solid color in the lower portion of the picture is read as a table.

The new still lifes reflect the wit typical of Lichtenstein. One of the most admirable aspects of his work is his constant pushing his own conventions into unexpected areas, as typified by his transformation of Ben-day dots in the “Mirrors.” The “Comic Strips,” “Monet” paintings, “Mirrors,” and now the “Still Lifes” present entirely different uses of his conventional dots.

Bruce Boice