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 of short black lines intermittently forming plus and minus signs—a pattern evoked by Lichtenstein in a Benday pattern, employed in his other late paintings, of small bricklike shapes. And not every pilgrim to the Guggenheim may recognize, in Lichtenstein’s Reflections on Nancy (1989), the close parroting of the acrylic by Andy Warhol which, with four other similar canvases placed in a Bonwit Teller window in 1961, signaled the possibility of comic-strip characters as subjects for high art—beyond being elements in a collage, as in some of Robert Rauschenberg’s.
Warhol’s paintings, however, were part of a window display by an established commercial artist; it was Lichtenstein who, against the initial reservations of the dealer Leo Castelli, first presented painted comic-strip enlargements as worthy to adorn a wall—or, as the artist put it in an interview with ARTnews in 1983, as canvases that were too “despicable” to hang, executed by a knowledgeable student of art who was “anti-contemplative, anti-nuance, anti-getting-away-from-the-tyranny-of-the-rectangle, anti-movement and-light, anti-mystery, anti-paint-quality, anti-Zen, and anti- all of those brilliant ideas of preceding movements which everyone understands so thoroughly.”
But of course the art establishment loves nothing better than packageable anti-establishmentarianism, and Lichtenstein’s paradoxical position is that of an instant classic who is still lampooning other classics, in a manner that has become pedantic. He is probably right in expecting his audience to be art-savvy enough to catch his allusions to Monet, van Gogh, Picasso, Léger, Matisse, Magritte, Gino Severini, Carlo Carrà, etc. Even if the audience were not, an artist’s obligation is to focus on what interests him, and to produce what pleases him. Spectators can only stand by and applaud (and pay) or not. Yet Lichtenstein’s recent recycling of his own earlier work, along with that of other artists, by means of overlaying their all-too-well-known images with irregular strips of Benday pattern (the Reflections series, e.g., Nurse  and Whaam! ) seems a rather desperate variation on a picture-making technique whose charm was always its impudent thinness. Descending the Guggenheim’s grand helix, one sees dots before the eyes, and sometimes not much else. Standing in front of one of his mirrors from the early Seventies—ovals empty but for dim diagonal dottings—one feels, as if standing near a hissing airplane door, in danger of being sucked out by the vacuity.
Benday is properly Ben Day, named after its inventor Benjamin Day (1838–1916), a New York printer who conceived of introducing tones of gray into photoengraving by means of small regular patterns of dots or stipples. Cartoonists and illustrators can purchase Benday patterns in transparent and adhesive sheets that, laid upon the inked-in drawing, can be carved with a razor blade or X-Acto knife to the shape desired. Lichtenstein’s defining stroke of genius was to enlarge Benday dots into a motif. At first, they were dabbed on by brush; then the bristles of a dog brush were dipped in paint and pressed against the canvas, giving a noticeable paneled look not present in real Bendayed reproductions. Also, in such early works as Black Flowers (1961) and Girl with Ball (1961) the dots are smaller than the enlarged scale calls for. By 1962, the dots have become regular, and by 1963 he had developed a method whereby manufactured stencils were employed by assistants. His trend has been toward bigger and more various patterns; they now include closely packed large dots, dots tapering in size from row to row, stripes, the brick pattern previously mentioned, and a particularly ugly fake wood grain echoing that found in Cubist collages.
Much of the handwork is still executed by Lichtenstein; at least, a charming little video film that runs in a side room at the Guggenheim shows Lichtenstein fondly filling in black circles and thick uniform outlines, while he assures the camera of the joy he takes in his craft. Such manual labor to produce an effect of mechanism argues for a kind of sainthood and suggests an unexpected affinity with the Performance Art that was contemporaneous with the beginnings of Pop Art: like the constructions destroyed in their performance, Lichtenstein’s brushwork vanishes in the finished product. “I want my painting to look as if it has been programmed. I want to hide the record of my hand.”
One comes away from the video liking Lichtenstein more for having seen it, and more prepared to consider his canvases as aesthetic objects, as well as effective attention-getters and counters in the ever-complicating game of modern art. The film shows him turning a Dagwood painting in outline upside down, to consider the composition abstractly, and a number of his paintings—the famous Whaam (1963), We Rose Up Slowly (1964), Still Life with Glass and Peeled Lemon (1972), Go for Baroque (1979)—impress us with the powerful rightness and, somehow, the pressure of their composition. From the comic-strip panel he learned how to use the canvas to the brim. The catalog, with a thorough and attentive, if rather pious and solemn, text by Diana Waldman, enables us to compare the paintings with their originals in advertising and comic-book art and bears out Lichtenstein’s claim that “My work is actually different from comic strips in that every mark is really in a different place, however slight the difference seems to some. The difference is often not great, but it is crucial.” Crucial, perhaps, but often so small that one wonders where the copyright lawyers for the comic-book companies have been sleeping all these years. The shock value of these painterly enlargements of single comics panels is diminished in reproduction, where they sink back toward the size of their models; perhaps not so paradoxically, an art based upon reproduction loses its punch when reproduced.
Descending, I was pleasantly surprised by the sculpture, which perforce has to step out from the two-dimensional shell game and compete in the world of objects. The Bendayed stripes become bars of painted bronze, and the visual puns—on Matisse in Goldfish Bowl II (1978), on a Minoan mural in Archaic Head VI—become transformations, arousing our sense of weight and materials. The polka-dotted ceramic heads and chunky coffee cups, complete with ceramic coffee and saucer and spoon, have the charm of old Pop sculpture, by Claes Oldenburg and Jasper Johns, with the patented Lichtenstein dottiness. Blessedly free of Benday and of any overt reference to his paintings are the witty and elegant brass pieces from the late Sixties, homage to the Art Deco décor of Thirties movie palaces, complete with velvet rope.
Art Deco is the one formal style that Lichtenstein cannot burlesque, since its geometric cleanness and streamlining snugly fit his predilections. Canvases like Modern Painting with Classic Head (1967) and Preparedness (1968) make it on their own, as it were, as impressive and energetic compositions. The second, in three panels, is based on the WPA murals of the Thirties, and Lichtenstein in an interview took some pains to establish his correct distance from it: “You realize I’m not serious about defending our shore against foreign devils, as these works would imply. But the purpose isn’t only the reverse. It is also a statement about ‘heroic’ composition.”
The purpose isn’t only the reverse: this statement is a useful corrective to Ms. Waldman’s singleminded drift, which casts Lichtenstein as a satirist and counterinsurgent whose purpose has been “to celebrate the absurd aspects of our cultural condition” and “to confront the clichés of art.” Her commentary does not much allow for the multidetermination of the artistic impulse; it can satirize and memorialize at the same time, and reconcile scorn with affection. Even the Brushstrokes, of the mid-Sixties, which are on the one hand a hilarious deconstruction of Abstract Expressionism’s splashing, dripping dramatization of the painter’s process—the brushstroke as heroic event—also constitute a tribute, an outburst of the very energy that the literalist, counter-stylistic rendering mocks.
When we arrive, a bit dizzy, on the last curves of the helix, at the comic-book paintings with which Lichtenstein made his mark, we find a far more complicated mood than travesty. At least our own response is in some significant fraction inextricable from our reaction to these panels as if we were encountering them in a comic book; the disjunct moments of melodrama (“It’s…it’s not an engagement ring. Is it?”; “Forget it! Forget Me! I’m fed up with your kind!”) catch us up in their narrative: Is it? What kind? The war scenes (Whaam!; Takka Takka; Okay, Hot Shot!) are thrilling, in their Second-World-War all-out murderousness; the true-romance heroines, the stylized girls with their globular tears and blue-black or black-yellow hair, are alluring in their emotional throes, each an “archetypical” woman, in Lichtenstein’s phrase. To Ms. Waldman, they are stonily “products of a culture that puts celluloid glamour and consumer objects before human dignity and individual or collective achievement” and victims of “society’s codification of women as ornaments, positioned for the male gaze only.” Far be it from me to deny Lichtenstein whatever Nineties-style political correctness he achieved in the early Sixties, when these images were created; but I think that to deny that our amusement and interest in them coincides with that of average comic-book readers would be as silly as denying that our interest in painted or sculpted nudes derives in part from prurience.
Pop Art won its public because it descended from abstraction and showed us our world—its artifacts, its trash, its billboards, its standardized romantic imagery. In seizing upon cartoon images with their flat color and outlines as a way to free himself from Abstract Expressionism, Lichtenstein did not opt for sheer nullity—otherwise, he would have stuck with the black-and-white golf balls, balls of twine, and composition-book covers innocent of any human drama, or would have stuck with Mickey Mouse and Wimpy instead of aping the more realistically drawn romance and war comics. His anti-expressionist comic-book paintings nevertheless have an expressive content, including, for those of Lichtenstein’s generation, a considerable quotient of nostalgia. The presiding mood of campy remove co-exists with the comic-book vitality, the vitality of folk art.
As the decades dissolve the context of contemporary-art politics, the more primitive underlying art remains. Having it both ways, Lichtenstein has said, “Once I have established what the subject matter is going to be I am not interested in it anymore, although I want it to come through with the immediate impact of the comics.” This underlying impact, to be found at the bottom of the Guggenheim spiral, pervades the oeuvre, though ever more weakly, as the postmodern painter with his studied manipulations displaced the unsung comic-book artists he appropriated.
December 16, 1993