New York

Roy Lichtenstein

Museum of Modern Art; Leo Castelli

“The Drawings of Roy Lichtenstein,” a traveling show of some 275 works organized by Museum of Modem Art curator Bernice Rose, is a herculean effort, an attempt at a retrospective of the artist’s drawing practice and, through the drawings, his total production. “Given the very large size of many of Lichtenstein’s paintings,” writes Rose in her catalogue preface, “only at the scale of drawing is it possible to have a detailed view of his career within a single exhibition.” Her aim is to trace the “logical unfolding of Lichtenstein’s work,” to describe, in a coherent manner, the diversity of a career that now extends over more than 25 years. Yet the strongest merit of this show is the way in which it inflects the very notion of drawing.

Lichtenstein’s art, as presented here, helps to demystify certain premises still clinging to this specific representational mode. One is that of the “expressive” and “improvisational” nature of drawing, as epitomized in the pencil sketch. Lichtenstein is far from a man of simple pencil pleasures. What comes through in these works, all of which are preparatory studies for paintings or murals, is the methodical rigor of his approach. Lichtenstein starts with a variety of visual options and then eliminates some and refines others. Each study develops from the selection and recombination of elements taken from printed illustrations, especially comics and art-historical reproductions, and other secondhand sources enlarged through projection to the scale of the canvas. There is a single-minded detachment to these procedures that precludes the gratuitous enjoyment of drawings made for their own sake alone; the result is work of a hard, trenchant, almost chilling brilliance. But the exhibition also dispels some of that formalist cant about the “independent logics” of painting and drawing, for these graphic works are studies for a kind of painting that is itself predicated on drawn line. Indeed, Lichtenstein’s art is about the look and scope of graphic representation—about our society’s thorough permeation by a culture of mass reproduction and cliché—and his line is the agent of cultural delineation, communicating not only through what it describes but also through the way it looks. This attention to the effect of form, or modes of rendering, may be the aspect that unifies his practice.

The exhibition begins with the “dumb” cultural imagery of the early ’60s that was instrumental to Pop—the zippers, baked potatoes, and gesticulating figures grafted from comic strips, cartoons, and newspaper ads. It moves through a series of art-historical “period themes” (Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, and Expressionism) and genres (the still life, the artist’s studio) and culminates in drawings for the artist’s current focus, the “Perfect” and “Imperfect” paintings, which are Lichtenstein’s witty updatings of geometric abstraction and the shaped canvas. (A selection of these paintings from 1986 was displayed concurrently at the Leo Castelli Gallery.) Evident throughout is his anthological knowledge of conventions—conventions of graphic representation (outline drawing, benday dots), of cultural style (stereotypical appearance and character types), and of art history (Surrealist devices, tromp l’oeil, etc.). A significant shift that the exhibition registers is the diminution in Lichtenstein’s tone from the brash, jarring utterances of his Pop period to the cool statements of the last decade in a voice that seemingly addresses everything with uniformity. This cool tone, while it adds to the repetitiveness of Lichtenstein’s art, brings into sharper focus his attention to the leveling effect of style. His art records and articulates a distinctly “synthetic” historical vision, specific to this stage in advanced industrial society, that reduces all objects or commentary to a single plane.

Lichtenstein’s efforts to simulate the look of mechanical reproduction lead to a problematic neutrality, a blank purview over culture that may be the ’60s legacy to much recent art. Yet his work derives relevance from other regions. His art is, above all, an art of imitation, both through its media style and through its rampant appropriations. The drawings are filled with doubling or interpolated systems of references in which each image refers to another—either to an appropriated image or to an element from another Lichtenstein work (which, since it is already derived from another painting, returns the process to square one). The drawings are echo chambers, and the reverberations are oddly pitched. Lichtenstein’s answer to painterly difficulties—the great Battle of Art—is simply to refer the question to another system. The compressed space of these stunning works is awash in cultural cues.

Kate Linker