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Real Cool

3.

The heart of the current Lichtenstein exhibition is a large gallery hung with sixteen of his best comic-book paintings of the early Sixties, including my personal favorite, We Rose Up Slowly (1964), which shows an enraptured romance-comic couple submerged underwater and just about to kiss. The square canvas that outlines these improbably gorgeous cartoon blondes is joined at the left to a second panel, one third the width of the first and inscribed with this breathless text against an off-white background: “WE ROSE UP SLOWLY…AS IF WE DIDN’T BELONG TO THE OUTSIDE WORLD ANY LONGER…LIKE SWIMMERS IN A SHADOWY DREAM…WHO DIDN’T NEED TO BREATHE…

Lichtenstein’s propulsive close-up, with the couple’s enormous visages opposed at a dynamic diagonal and engulfed by swirling eddies and effervescent bubbles, brings to mind such upwardly spiraling Baroque constructs as Rubens’s The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (1618), in which the heads of the principal protagonists are almost a mirror image of those in this composition, though in the Pop pastiche the woman offers no resistance to her eager swain.

Lichtenstein certainly knew his art history, as is proven, almost ad nauseam, by the largest gallery in the Chicago show, which contains no fewer than twenty-seven works based on classic efforts by celebrated earlier artists, ranging from Monet and Matisse to Picasso and Mondrian, to name only a handful of his sources. However, the too-exhaustive checklist of paintings (and a few sculptures) in this imitative vein makes it feel as though Lichtenstein were laboriously working his way through a burdensome college syllabus rather than enjoying spiritual kinship with likeminded creative brethren.

Only a few of these diligent works convey any arresting originality, none more so than his deliciously droll Portrait of Madame Cézanne (1962), which replicates a black-and-white outline diagram of that picture by Erle Loran, whose 1943 book Cézanne’s Composition futilely tried to explain this most majestic and impenetrable of modern masters. Loran might just as well have been measuring the artist’s compliant wife for a new frock.

Even though the preternaturally industrious Lichtenstein still had four very productive years left following his 1993 Guggenheim retrospective, the concluding galleries of the Chicago show are an anticlimax after the haunting, thought-provoking Mirrors. In the handsome exhibition catalog, Wagstaff makes a spirited case for the artist’s penultimate Nudes series (1994–1997) as a transcendent breakthrough that in her estimation brings his career to a thrillingly open-ended conclusion.

However, Wagstaff’s impassioned argument is not at all supported by the works themselves, in which awkward unclothed female figures frolic and pose in a variety of stagy pin-up attitudes. These fantasy babes are doubly unerotic, not only because the outsized red or blue Ben-Day dots that cover their smoothly pneumatic bodies resemble contagious rashes, but even more so because they bring to mind nothing so much as inflatable sex dolls.

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Private collection
Roy Lichtenstein: Landscape in Fog, 1996

The survey closes with a selection of the artist’s final series, Landscapes in the Chinese Style (1996–1997), which were the subject of a show at the Gagosian Gallery in New York earlier this year, no doubt intended to capitalize on the increasing presence of high-rolling Chinese collectors in the blue-chip international art market. Based on Song Dynasty scroll paintings, which had fascinated Lichtenstein since his GI days, the twenty or so Chinoiserie canvases that he produced just before he died range from the ethereal Landscape in Fog (1996), in which he at last resolves his attempts at mixing Ben-Day dots (mountains and water) with Expressionistic brushwork (clouds and mist), to other examples that fail to rise above the level of Chinese restaurant decor.

The Chicago retrospective’s most inexplicable lapse is its shocking omission of Lichtenstein’s great 1989–1997 series of domestic interiors, not a single example of which is displayed. These imposing canvases (the largest is more than eleven feet high and thirty feet wide) depict modern living rooms in angular perspective, and often incorporate reflective mirrored walls, city views framed by large windows, and amusingly generic works of abstract art. There had been a monographic show of these works at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 1999, but that cannot possibly justify their complete absence here. Lichtenstein’s Interiors were enthusiastically received by critics who correctly saw them as happy evidence of his return to top form after years of rigorously produced, technically proficient, but somehow irresolute work.

Those latter misfires included his Reflections series of the early 1990s, in which he revisited themes he had pursued earlier in his career but overlaid them with illusionistic slashes of mirrorlike patterning. That self-cannibalizing strategy paralleled Warhol’s equally weak late-career Retrospectives and Reversals series (1979–1980), in which he went back to his Marilyns and Mona Lisas of the Sixties and recycled them to little benefit as negative images.

What Lichtenstein and Warhol shared most in common was their inherent Cool—both in the 1960s definition of being hip and happening, but also in the larger sense of emotional inaccessibility. A major difference in the psychological makeup of both men can be readily distinguished in their contrasting artistic production. Lichtenstein, a secular Jew, was a good-looking, apparently happy, sexually satisfied heterosexual whose essential indifference to others often drove those closest to him crazy. Warhol, a devout Catholic wracked by insecurities about his appearance and tormented by religious guilt about his homosexuality, barely had any emotional reserves left for the vast and greedy entourage who lived off his fame and fortune. The underlying anxiety that gives Warhol’s best work its psychic charge has no equal in the placid worldview of Lichtenstein, whose crying women convey no greater menace than moths futilely beating their wings against a windowpane.

I exited “Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective” much enlightened but devoid of the euphoria I’d felt several months earlier when I saw “Andy Warhol: Fame and Misfortune,” at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio. The 150 objects in that survey came entirely from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh; the 160-plus works at the Art Institute are on loan from more than four dozen international sources—a sign of the borrowing clout wielded by a major institution like the Chicago museum as opposed to a small regional gallery like the McNay.

All the same, the Texas museum’s curator of post-1945 art, René Paul Barrileaux, did an admirable job in combing through the Warhol Museum’s holdings to find works that, if not necessarily the finest examples of their kind, were certainly up to the task of conveying his sharp interpretation of Warhol’s work. For all Warhol’s qualms about being beaten to the punch by Lichtenstein with their eerily similar cartoon paintings of 1961, there can be no doubt now that Warhol was a far more significant artist than his erstwhile rival for the backing of Leo Castelli. If Warhol had any contemporary peer it was Robert Rauschenberg, whose Combines (1954–1964)—stunning hybrids of painting and sculpture—would be enough from his vast oeuvre to earn him an equal place at the very top of the Pop pyramid.

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Gemini G.E.L., Los Angeles
Andy Warhol: Vote McGovern, 42 x 42 inches, 1972

“Andy Warhol: Fame and Misfortune” offered a penetrating examination of its subject’s deep-seated obsession, from childhood onward, with celebrity and publicity that he developed from precocious juvenilia—tracings of movie-star advertising endorsements and the like—to the mesmerizing silk-screened images he created in the early Sixties of megastars such as Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Elvis Presley, after he abandoned his highly lucrative practice as one of New York’s most-sought-after commercial artists to pursue the far less certain path of a high-style painter. Among the revelations of the McNay show was Barilleaux’s documentation that virtually every Warhol subject (at least until he began using a Polaroid camera in 1970) was based on photographs by others, even his universally recognized Campbell’s Soup cans. In contrast, scholars have shown that Lichtenstein almost always altered his comic-book sources to improve their compositional qualities.

Warhol, as the San Antonio exhibition reconfirmed, was a true believer and no ironist. Haunted by the specter of AIDS as a gay man in the 1980s, he was consumed by fears of an early death, which he in fact met although not from the cause he expected. (He was done in at fifty-eight by post-operative negligence after gall bladder surgery at New York–Presbyterian Hospital.)

The final irony for the ironist Lichtenstein is that he thought he would live forever, or at least as long as humanly possible. His mother died at ninety-five, and he told friends he felt good for a hundred, which no one doubted. He ate organic foods, maintained a trim figure, neither smoked, drank, nor used drugs, enhanced his youthful looks with cosmetic surgery, and enjoyed a vigorous extramarital sex life.

Yet he fell short of his centennial by twenty-seven years. In the summer of 1997, the otherwise healthy artist checked himself into Southampton Hospital, near his Long Island studio, with walking pneumonia. When his condition worsened he was transferred to New York University Medical Center in Manhattan, but he had contracted the antibiotic-resistant hospital-borne infection MRSA. Lichtenstein retained his wry humor to the very end, and as he was put into an oxygen tent his last words to his second wife, Dorothy, were, “Well, here I go,” uttered with the laconic cool of an Apollo astronaut ready to shoot for the moon.

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