New York

Roy Lichtenstein

Gagosian Gallery (21)

Whereas Bidlo’s Picassos show him as a “parasite” on Picasso, sapping his host of all his vital juices, Roy Lichtenstein is a transformer of Picasso, continuing Picasso’s own project of modernizing the art of the past, making it fit for contemporary consumption. Lichtenstein does not reproduce Picasso but brings out certain possibilities latent in his style and the attitude to his subject matter that it implies. In contrast to Bidlo, who trivializes Picasso’s work by swallowing it whole and giving it back undigested—cannibalizing it and capitalizing on the recognition factor of Picasso’s style—Lichtenstein remains sensitive to its issue-orientation, the depth of Picasso’s engagement with his subject matter. And just as in Picasso there is a certain humor to the transformation—to me most evident in his numerous versions of Velázquez’s Las Meninas—there is a humor to Lichtenstein’s transformation of Picasso. Moreover, four of the five works that were exhibited here (done in 1962 and ’63) deal with some of Picasso’s images of women, suggesting Lichtenstein’s similar preoccupation, which can be verified by studying the iconography of his other ’60s works. And the fifth work, a 1964 still life painted on Plexiglas, freshly makes another point that Picasso had made fifty years before: the updating of the materials of art, the use of new materials alongside traditional ones.

Making high art with lowly materials not only invigorates art but lends a certain humor to the project as well. Much humor depends on reversal of expectations, and involves, as Freud says, the use of socially acceptable means (such as Lichtenstein’s comic-strip mode) to articulate repressed unconscious attitudes. The humor—if it is that—of Bidlo’s reproduction involves a flippant depreciation of Picasso, a truly annihilative diminishment of him. The best that can be said for it is that it is almost black humor. Lichtenstein’s more jovial humor, apparent in the vulgar gusto of his use of the comic strip, involves an ironic empathy. While Picasso’s originals suggest an ambivalent attitude to woman, presenting her as at once deliriously sensual flesh and comically monstrous and characterless, Lichtenstein’s negation of her is more thoroughgoing. She has been completely dephysicalized by being resolutely flattened, and her monstrousness has been made self-caricaturing, like the figures in the comic strips from which Lichtenstein drew his inspiration at the time. Picasso’s “comic-strip” articulation —not yet become the mannerism it has become in Lichtenstein—was a means of denying woman the sacredness she still had for him by reason of his dependence on her for pleasure, and, more crucially, a way to create an aura of indifference to her power over him—a detachment that Picasso struggled to achieve but never fully realized. Lichtenstein’s emphasis on what he has called “organized perception”—I would put the emphasis on the “organized” rather than the “perception”—involves an almost arbitrary manipulation of the picture’s parts. In other words, Lichtenstein gains control of his object by organizing his perception of it into what might best be described as Dadaistic design. Whereas Picasso struggled for control of an emotionally difficult subject matter—that of woman, whose erotic playfulness appealed to his artistic playfulness—Lichtenstein achieves control by rigidifying the image of Picasso’s partially uncontrollable, playful female. It is Lichtenstein’s rigidity that we ultimately find comical, because it is so antithetical to our sense of woman and the human as such. Perhaps Lichtenstein is not unlike Bidlo after all: Bidlo kills Picasso the (overestimated?) father of modern art; and Lichtenstein, through Picasso, kills woman, that generally overestimated subject of art, by confirming her invisibility—that is, her existence as no more than an “abstract” form.

Donald Kuspit