Roy Lichtenstein 8, 1993January 16, 1994
In attending the Roy Lichtenstein show at the Guggenheim Museum, I made a mistake: imagining that the exhibit, like most I have viewed in that cunning spiral, would begin at the top, I took the elevator up, and found myself not at Lichtenstein’s dawn as an artist but flung headlong into his latest, slickest phase. A quiet sign beckoned me yet upward, through one of the Guggenheim’s cavelike little archways, and I was in a large room holding large canvases from the 1990s—meticulous crystallizations, or visual embalmings, of prototypical American living quarters. It was without doubt the best-illumined viewing space of my museum-going experience; had I stayed in it longer, I might have acquired a tan. However, the paintings, with their wrought iron outlines and industrial-quality Bendaydots and prefab stripes, and their squared-off sofas and end tables, and their stark little simplifications of name-brand artworks, including some of Lichtenstein’s, did not invite lingering contemplation, and I plunged impatiently on the smooth slope downward, in search of the comic strip enlargements that are Lichtenstein’s deathless contribution to contemporary art.
Alas, they were near the bottom of the long unwinding ribbon of viewing space, and to get to them I had to pass by, not always impatiently, three decades’ worth of the variations that the ingenious, hard-working artist has rung upon his single idea—the transportation into high art of reproduced commercial art’s mechanical look. Nighttime was settling into the world beyond Wright’s impregnable, topshaped fortress. The Guggenheim stays open late, in keeping with its jazzy structure, and it must be said that never have I seen art works as comfortably resplendent in its gargantuan coils as these poster-bold big canvases of Lichtenstein’s. Back and forth they blatantly signaled across the well of space, ignoring the shadowy, shuffling form of us pedestrian art-lovers, who had trooped into the dusk to be dwarfed and cowed once more by the aloof majesty of the modern masters, in this case Wright and Lichtenstein. A museum designed in splendid disdain of the art it houses, and an art which, in the words of the monitory lecture lettered on the wall, is devoted to “conveying an ironic, anti-aesthetic attitude, and capturing a look of ‘insincerity”’—they were made for each other. Gaudy as a circus, the silent spectacle was well worth the pilgrimage up to 90th Street. In these days when a cultural event must have a very high gloss to catch the eye, the Lichtenstein show bedazzles.
And yet—to get back to my wrongended perambulation—paintings so steadfastly ironical, so exclusively devoted to the reduction of derived imagery, to the reprocessing of existing art, flicker across the attention with a certain monotony. The reality is always two-dimensional, the smile is always dry. The dryness of the two Plus and Minus canvases (1988) may be wasted on those viewers who do not recognize the allusion to Piet Mondrian’s Composition in Black and White (1917), an abstraction composed …