New York

Roy Lichtenstein

Leo Castelli Gallery downtown

The paintings of Roy Lichtenstein have probably never been surpassed in sheer pitiless glitter. His recent show consisted of two groups: a series of horizontal paintings of entablatures and a larger group of satires of earlier 20th-century painting styles and procedures. Lichtenstein’s most characteristic stance is that of satirist. His humor has been consistently cold and sardonic. Sporting with the likes of Matisse or Carrá or Mondrian raises a series of moral problems, since it is a case of a declared modern artist savaging other artists. The issue is a little like that of certain Jewish comics whose stock-in-trade is the rather harsh anti-Semitic joke. The difference is that the Jewish comic can inflect his jokes, shifting voices and nuances for varying human effects, while Lichtenstein’s targets are all forced through the chilly neutral sieve of his machinelike painting style. It is as if the artist is making a claim of the superiority of his style over its historical content, i.e. Lichtenstein’s methods over Picasso’s art. The style yields not an inch before its subject.

A few assumptions we tend to make about Western art are that it is human in scope and emotional in content, and is the result, often, of anguished decisions and painful sacrifices. One pictures Mondrian at 70, working away, agonizing over the smallest decision in each painting, his life devoid of much that is considered necessary by most of the rest of us. Against those values, one cannot accept Lichtenstein’s glibness. Humor, per se, is not the issue, nor is it the nature of Pop art. Claes Oldenburg’s humor requires no victims. And Andy Warhol in retrospect seems to have approached a kind of understated tragedy in his work; at least that is my reading of some of the execution-chamber paintings and even some of the Jacqueline Kennedy paintings. They deal with a sense of shared pain which is underlined by numbing repetition of the image.

Lichtenstein included in his Castelli show three sequences of three paintings each, depicting the transformation of conventional subjects—profile head, cow and pitcher—into quasicubist abstractions. The cow paintings, of course, are a swipe at Theo van Doesburg, whose Neoplastic transformation series at the Museum of Modern Art is well known. Essentially these new Lichtensteins reminded me of Tom Wolfe’s recent satiric treatment of modern artists working to achieve “flatness” in gradual steps: Wolfe on Morris Louis is a literary equivalent of Lichtenstein on van Doesburg. Straw man or vulnerable target, the effect is the same—a chic, sardonic, flashy stylist caricatures the accomplishments of serious, older artists.

Another group of new paintings Lichtenstein included was a series depicting classical entablatures, seen up close, parallel to and coincident with the picture plane. They, like the earlier mirror paintings, represent a turning to more neutral, and therefore more “formal” concerns. They are successful. Lichtenstein’s gifts are in the direction of linear pattern-making, which fits this subject adequately. But the problem for him, as with most parodists, is that with his claws retracted the results are somewhat bland. Though perfectly accomplished and clearly stated, these entablature. paintings, like the mirrors, seem oddly unsatisfying and incomplete.

Budd Hopkins