Roy Lichtenstein was famously dismissive of people who tried to read too deeply into his work. In an interview in the ’60s he declared his paintings to be “anti-contemplative, anti-nuance, anti-getting-away-from-the-tyranny-of-the-rectangle … anti-mystery.” His comic-strip paintings are almost deceptively simple, reproducing the mass-produced in a painstakingly labor-intensive format.
And yet if ever a show offered thoughtful insight into an elusive and unwilling subject, it’s “Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective,” which comes to the National Gallery of Art’s East Building from the Art Institute in Chicago before heading to Paris’s Centre Pompidou and London’s Tate Modern. The first comprehensive look at Lichtenstein’s oeuvre since his death in 1997, the show transforms the East Building’s multi-level exhibition space into an oversize, overcaffeinated fiesta of sorts, with more than 100 large-scale paintings on display, as well as sculptures and studies. Most works feel iconic, given their oversaturation in the world of prints, postcards, and even throw pillows, but the exhibition also lingers among Lichtenstein’s later works, including his breathtaking foray into Chinese landscapes.
The show’s structure feels largely chronological, so it starts in the late 1950s when Lichtenstein was experimenting with abstract art. Untitled canvases from 1959 and ’60 feel messy and forgettable, with scribbles of color and daubs of paint, but the bold primary colors segue nicely into 1961’s “Look Mickey,” the artist’s first comic-inspired painting (he was reportedly challenged by his son to paint anything as good as a Disney cartoon). The bright yellow background appears haphazard, but Donald’s eyes and Mickey’s rose-tinted face are studded with spots—the first signs of the Benday dots Lichtenstein made his trademark. Paintings from the same year immortalize ordinary household objects, from a washing machine with primrose-colored suds to a pair of sneakers to a ribbon-adorned foot stepping delicately on a small trash can painted with red daisies. In “Spray” (1962), a hand with sharp, almost predatory red fingernails wields an aerosol can like a weapon. While the fingernails gleam, reflecting the light, the hands are rendered flat by tiny, uneven dots.
So much of Lichenstein’s work seems to be about attempting to create motion within a two-dimensional image. In his aggressive, hyper-masculine war paintings, guns spit out sound effects like “takka takka” and “bratatat,” and frenzied onomatopoeic words crash into vivid jets of smoke and flames. Contrasted with the soft, languorous romance of “Crying Girl” or “M-Maybe,” in which girls with soulful eyes and strips of flowing hair gaze into the distance, the war paintings are oppressive in their scale and their brutally simple color scheme. In the later “Explosions” series, paintings become enamel sculptures, leaping off the wall in a barrage of different tones and textures.
The show’s “Landscapes” room, featuring works created between 1964 and 1967, does even more to explore perspective and the art of trompe l’oeil. A bold red sun shoots yellow rays into the sky, jumping out from a background of red-and-blue dots. In “Seascape” and “Pink Seascape,” Lichtenstein abandons paint to work with Rowlux plastic, shaping and molding it into iridescent, bubblegum-colored waves. “Perforated Seascape” pokes even rows of dots into layers of painted steel, letting them overlap and move with the viewer.
Almost as iconic as Lichenstein’s gargantuan comic strips are his homages to other artists. A triptych of paintings of Monet’s “Rouen Cathedral” remove one more layer of familiarity from the images, zooming in on them and abstracting them behind dots. It’s a thought-provoking play on representation, as is “Reflections on ‘Interior With Girl Drawing,’” which takes Picasso’s painting and removes whole sections of color. “Reflections” here is something of a double entendre—it could mean exploration, or it could also mean literal reflections, which Lichtenstein explores further in his mirror paintings, capturing the light of a reflection without the actual image it reproduces.
The show closes with the artist’s later series of nudes—removed from comic books and stripped of clothing, making them emblematic of high and low art at the same time—as well as his Chinese landscapes (both series were done in the 1990s). In “Landscape in Fog,” a dotted mountain peers out over a broad splash of light blue paint, a gesture that seems to revert to Lichtenstein’s earliest abstract works. A tiny tree, spongy in structure, is perched in the bottom left-hand corner, delicate in nature but also appearing oddly out of context. It’s a quiet but pointed reminder that the painter was still experimenting late in life, and that he would continue, doggedly, to defy interpretation.
“Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective” is on display October 13 through January 14 in the National Gallery of Art’s East Building. For more information, visit the gallery’s website.