East Hampton

Roy Lichtenstein

Guild Hall

This exhibition of Roy Lichtenstein’s sculptures posited the success the artist—primarily a painter—has had working in three dimensions throughout his career. Arranged chronologically, the exhibition brought a lot of work into a limited space, perhaps to the detriment of the objects, which, despite their brightness and clarity of line, seemed fussy and baroque—but there may be more to this than the simple placement of the work.

Lichtenstein, now an éminence grise in the art world, seems to have been refining the same set of ideas throughout his career, and while the work has grown in finish and craftsmanship, it doesn’t seem very exciting: whatever real fascination with form and materials once existed is now gone, replaced only by cheery tinkering.

Despite the primary colors and familiar ’60s icons—coffee cups and mannequins, airplanes and explosions—the overall feeling of this exhibition is more than a little melancholy. The deadpan quality of the images is barely titillating when taken as seriously as it was here at Guild Hall. But as the grand old man of Pop these days—so much more accessible than James Rosenquist and Jasper Johns, and so much more acceptable than Andy Warhol—Roy Lichtenstein is the toast of the South Fork.

Its past irreverence denied, this work seems exceptionally safe, hypocritical, and bourgeois. The sculptures will surely all find homes on the front lawns and patios of dull but wealthy New Yorkers with “avant-garde” aspirations. What could be better for the new beach cottage than a not-too-challenging three-dimensional picture out of a comic book? Who could say no to a coffee cup, a water pitcher, or an egg? The exhibition concluded with a sculpted version of an early Lichtenstein image: Airplane, 1990, a fighter jet turned sideways, guns blazing. It would look just right on some corporate raider’s lawn.

Could it be, one wonders, that Lichtenstein was never really much of a visionary, just some guy who lucked out? That he may have been timely in 1964, but the only thing timely about this show was its emphasis on recycling? To convince yourself otherwise, you could circle the room counter clockwise. That way you moved back in time rather than forward, away from the bad art, back to the good. You got increasingly excited as you went. At the very end you found what you’d been seeking all along: two mannequin heads, one in ceramic and the other plaster, both colored in striking comic-book-type graphics; two wall reliefs in brightly painted metal, one of a rising sun and the other of an explosion; and four ceramic sculptures of coffee-cup groupings. There was a truly exciting sense of experimentation here, both in materials and imagery. They seemed, in their different ways, to define the moment of their creation, still shocking thirty years later.

How appropriate, then, that the mannequin heads and coffee cups should have been set off from the rest of the exhibition in a deep coffin-shaped Plexiglas vitrine. For here in East Hampton one discovered not Pop, but Pop mummified, and one traced, for better or worse, the thirty-year evolution of an artist’s 3-D work.

Justin Spring