Boom! Whaam! Blam! Bang! Pop explodes in the Chicago summer. The Art Institute is hosting the large exhibition Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective until 3 Sept. It is organised by the museum in collaboration with the Tate Modern of London, and in autumn it will move to the National Gallery of Washington (14 Oct 2012-6 Jan 2013) and finally to the British capital (21 Feb-27 May 2013) It was during a conference at the MoMA of New York in Dec 1963 that the new movement which was revolutionising American and world art was officially christened Pop Art. Among its “founding fathers”, who included Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, George Maciunas and Marcel Duchamp, there was also Roy Lichtenstein (New York 1923-1997). And we know how devoted America is to its founding fathers. The Lichtenstein Foundation, presided over by his second wife Dorothy, operates in New York, and all over the world dozens of exhibitions continue to celebrate his genius. This one in Chicago, with over 150 paintings and sculptures and about thirty so far unseen small paintings and collages, is the largest exhibition which has been organised since the artist’s death, the first opportunity since 1997 to review at a single go a career which lasted half a century.
Lichtenstein has been copied, imitated, quoted and reproduced, and is recognised and recognisable in every corner of the world as a drawer of comic strips and a creator of advertising images. But his production extended to many forms, not all of which are as yet understood, and not in an equal way. So the attention of the curators of this retrospective has concentrated particularly on Lichtenstein’s relationship with the artistic sources which inspired him, from Picasso to Cubism, Surrealism, Futurism, German Expressionism up to the American West. In the rooms of the ArtIC the complex, overall vision of his language is thus finally revealed. Alongside the “Pop Romance” series and the famous, certainly crucial comic strips which now constitute a small legacy for humanity, the stages of an uninterrupted, necessary career are documented here. Here inspiration means also debunking, and the only purpose of imitation is to get conceptually as far away as possible from the original, whether it be a Matisse still life or a hot dog. The New York master, icon of Pop Art and destroyer of the pop icon, is not interested in reproducing reality but in re-interpreting it, concerning himself primarily with how a work of art is perceived.
Merriment, playfulness, amusement, irony are the passwords to Roy Lichtenstein’s pop universe peopled with babes, heroes and cartoon characters, fighting planes, explosions and snorting bulls, crowded with mirrors and household objects, cut up into frames and collages, photographed in landscapes, still lifes and artist’s studies. A painted, sculpted world coloured with extra-large felt pens and printed with false Benday dots; shining with oils and gloss paints; a world made up of canvas, wood, plastic, bronze and glass; geometrically defined in black and white; lit up by the graphic impact of the primary colours (blue, yellow, red), onto which the flesh pink of the faces and bodies intrudes, and also sometimes the blue of the skies; punctuated with exclamations, cries, wails inside a bubble cribbed from the planet of comic strips in the country of stars and stripes.
The journey around the fabulous world of Roy Lichtenstein starts in the 1950s with the homages to the cowboy and pioneer epics, and end in 1995 with the Chinese landscapes with their soft colours and liquid forms, a highly personal evocation of Degas’ pastel landscapes. In the middle lies a road paved with art. Starting with when Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, and Bugs Bunny broke into his pictures, or when he began to reinterpret masterpieces by Matisse, Monet, Cézanne, Picasso and Mondrian. It was 1957. Debunking his “copies” and converting them into pop quotations, he transforms them into glamorous, often giant-sized originals. With the 1960s comes free experimentation, the use of alternative techniques and materials in painting and sculpture. Lichtenstein passed from perspex to rowlux (lenticular plastic with which he composed magnetic collages), from brass to perforated steel sheets. He combined oil paints with acrylics and began to fill his canvases with Benday dots, which have remained in 20th-century art as his indelible signature: painting which imitates typographical printing in yet another role inversion.
These were the years of the advertising illustrations which made him famous. Borrowing glasses, cups, turkeys and slices of cake from daily life, adopting the emphatic language of comic strips, Lichtenstein’s work reflects reality and mirrors mass-media symbols and American middle-class consumerism. This was on the rise in the post-Second -World War economic boom of which he too was the product.
The Still Lifes packed with self-quotations and allusions to Matisse and Cubism; the Artist’s Studio series; the provocations on Futurism; the use of metallic colours: all these belong to the 1960s. And the Mirrors, the reinterpretations of the Surrealists (from Dalì to Ernst to Mirò) from whom he borrows figurative fragments; the painted and coated bronze sculptures, three-dimensional transpositions of two-dimensional originals which take on new meaning and different functions. In the 1980s we have the Brush Stroke series, the Stretchers and Two Paintings series, the geometrical abstraction of the Perfect/Imperfect series, the Reflections at Southampton which contain quotations from previous comic strips. And the 1990s, with the series of Interiors and Nudes: illustrated young nude women shown in the act of sleeping, reading, playing. There is all of Lichtenstein’s art in the Chicago show: a quirky, amused rereading of the past which has invented contemporary style. Today his pin-ups appear on the cover of the MoMA guide but also on chairs, bags and tennis shoes…it’s the irrepressible pop fever, darling!