New York

Roy Lichtenstein

Castelli Gallery Uptown

Roy Lichtenstein’s recent exhibition contained one of his best paintings in recent years, and three others which in combination could not equal the first. Lichtenstein has developed toward greater thematic and formal complexity. His earlier work usually focused on a single object, event or kind of representation: a golf ball or a brushstroke; a Picasso still life or a Greek temple; a blown-up advertisement or frame or two from a comic strip; a mirror or a Mondrian. All were subjected to Lichtenstein’s own sardonic method of representation involving Benday dots, flat primaries, thick black outlines and an even impersonal surface. The Benday dots have been replaced by another mechanical device: diagonal parallel stripes (black or red with white) which, like the dots, regard and disregard the boundaries between objects in order to describe, flatten, and unify. But generally, the mechanical popular method of depiction is much the same. Lichtenstein’s subjects, on the other hand, seem to retreat more and more into both art and multiplicity. Recently he has dealt extensively with two conventions which have traditionally given artists the opportunity to arbitrarily juxtapose a great variety of objects and surfaces: the still life and the studio interior. Using these two formats in combination, Lichtenstein appropriates from all previous sources at once, by appropriating mostly from his own earlier work. These paintings are packed with objects, works of art (mostly Lichtenstein’s, but also Matisse’s and Mondrian’s) and the cross-references between them. In moving away from the basic unity inherent in the single format or subject, Lichtenstein often takes on more than he can coherently handle, more than his style can pull together. In three out of four cases, then, these paintings seem packed in the usual way, which is that they do not seem put together. In the fourth, Artist’s Studio, The Dance, Lichtenstein achieves a newly complicated kind of unity through color, space and scale, which, as always, seems effortless.

The foreground of Artist’s Studio, The Dance is a table on which ingredients for at least three still lifes occupy as many layers of space. A wine jug, a coffee cup, and some brushes are all cut by the lower right and bottom edges of the canvas. Behind the cup, a plate of lemons (recently prominent in a triptych and other still fifes) rests on a white square which does not really rest on the table, but tilts the already flat lemons forward. Behind this is an arrangement of driftwood, a jar and some flowers and to the left, on a line with the wine jug, another jar containing three more paintbrushes. These objects are prominent, filling a shallow space closed off by the lower portion of Matisse’s The Dance, which is, in essence, the upper half of the painting. The two visible dancers are white, and their bodies connect with the white of the driftwood to form an irregular square in the center of the painting. A different kind of connection occurs in the upper-left corner where two yellow brush tips overlap the yellow hair of one dancer, a continuity made more prominent (and more out-of-whack spatially) by a bright blue square, another brush tip, the single instance of dark blue. Its singularity, its contrast with the yellow, and the jump in space make this square one of the biggest shapes in the painting. The use of color throughout this painting is equally deliberate. For example, yellow is dispersed around the outer edges just as the white square forms the center. Beginning in the upper-right corner and moving clockwise, yellow occurs on a picture frame, on a window frame within a picture (the left half of Lichtenstein’s The Sound of Music from 1964), on a paintbrush in the lower-right corner, on the four lemons, the basket on the wine jug, and on the brushes and dancer’s hair discussed above. Finally the dancer on the right has a strip of yellow in her hair which is parallel to the picture frame first mentioned, completing the sequence. Red and green are distributed with equal frugality and effect. The stripes function as shadows in the foreground, on round ceramic objects which they flatten, as background in the Matisse and The Sound of Music and as an actual surface object in the picture frame. The bold, carefully placed color and the large prominent shapes particularly unify this painting. Space and surface are continuous, one part flows into the next. Lichtenstein’s composition is not unusual, but when he makes a single structure out of so many disparate elements, maintaining a consistent scale which seems to disregard the objects themselves, he clarifies with unsettling simplicity how composition works in the most abstract, visual sense.

The remaining three paintings use many of the same elements: paintings and objects from still lifes, all in a studio, and some of the same devices, particularly the cutting of these elements by the edges of the canvas, but they do not seem to coalesce. The space in these paintings is at once vast and crowded—crowded with things which occupy without structuring space as in the first painting discussed. The objects and paintings occur around the edges of a relatively empty center; and it is significant that, unlike the first painting, these three all include large areas of floor. Thus objects are distant and small-scaled to begin with; the structure which we are most aware of is not that created by these objects themselves, but that of the room, of the studio they occupy, a structure which Lichtenstein never really has to bother with in Artist’s Studio, The Dance. Color is used less and less interestingly in these paintings too; there are much larger areas of stripes and of white. Similarly the changes in scale and space suggested by the different paintings stacked around these studios never becomes continuous; the pictures remain pictures, the objects remain objects, all discrete; in The Dance everything becomes part of the same, single picture. These paintings end up being read, pieced together; they are witty compendiums of Lichtenstein’s career and they joke about an ambition which the first painting simply confirms by being convincingly, carefully structured. Lichtenstein has always been a bit blasé about his subject matter, but when he is blasé about composition, things seem to fall apart. In contrast to the first painting, there is nothing in the other three that he has not done better elsewhere.

Roberta Smith