New York

Roy Lichtenstein

The hard thing about Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings of brushstrokes isn’t getting the joke (they. are often extremely funny) but thinking of them as paintings.

The forty-eight drawings, sculptures, and paintings in this show of work from the late ’50s to the mid-’90s weren’t lined up chronologically, but I went to the early canvases first-partly out of curiosity, as they are seldom shown. Lichtenstein had at one time wanted these abstractions to be destroyed, presumably to emphasize his post-’61 Pop production. But the 1959 paintings, made during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, point as much to Lichtenstein’s consistent distance from the brushstroke as to his immature style. They look like something dreamed up by a child of Grace Hartigan and Gerhard Richter: passages broadly smeared with rags, a few sharp lines brushed in, none of it entirely cohering. Here Lichtenstein seems to be investigating the possible ways to make a mark, eliding intuitive experimentation and conceptual commentary.

He soon followed these works with the Pop images of what he called his “constructed” or “cartoon” brushstroke—marks treated as subject matter—and there were some wonderful examples here. But the most interesting paintings, which bring together the expressive and the mechanical, come in the ’80s. Composition, 1982, for instance, has a Kline-like structure of strong value contrast punctuated by a few constructed brushstrokes in blue, yellow, and black. In the early ’60s, Lichtenstein spoke of the shift in his style as a conversion. By the ’80s, perhaps it had occurred to him that he didn’t have to decide between gesture and deliberation, just as the once life-or-death urgency of choosing between abstraction and representation now seems quaint.

Several of the large paintings from the ’80s are accompanied by sketches painted on acetate, which Lichtenstein would project onto canvas, as in the Magna Study for Two Apples, 1981. These simple, brushy images seem to be here to anchor the larger, coolly finished paintings in direct feeling or a traditional art practice of “real” brushstrokes—and they are indeed lovely, direct, charming. But they don’t rescue Lichtenstein from his own irony so much as they highlight the careful construction of his paintings, as each spontaneous stroke is meticulously reproduced.

Many artists who combine direct and self-conscious marks are congratulated (or dismissed) for producing a metacommentary on painting, but a number of them, including Richter and David Reed, insist on the value of painting itself even as they refuse to believe in one true way to paint. Lichtenstein’s depicted brushstrokes provide an ironic commentary. but as a subject they also describe something to which he devoted enormous time and energy over his lifetime. Like Richter and Reed, Lichtenstein demonstrates that to be deeply engaged with work that is intellectual and calculated rather than conventionally emotive is nonetheless to be deeply engaged. The emotions expressed in the romance and war comics Lichtenstein draws from are not the emotions he is dealing with in those pictures, any more than are the emotions described in the splashy brushstrokes. The brushstrokes are cerebral but also genuinely expressive of painterly emotion, even as they parody angst-y expressionism.

The latest painting in the show, Landscape in Fog, 1996, joins brushy Japanese painting with Western commercial printing, using benday dots of various sizes to indicate atmospheric perspective. Although this late work traces the conventions and constraints of the medium, it also indicates the vastness of its territory.

Katy Siegel