Feature

Exhibit of the week: Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective

The artist's comic-book-style canvases are even more impressive when seen in the context of his full career.

The Art Institute of Chicago
Through Sept. 3

 Roy Lichtenstein saw our Facebook present half a century before it arrived, said Blake Gopnik in Newsweek. As “popular and fun” as his enormous comic-book-style canvases have long been, they might be even more impressive when seen in the context of the late painter’s full career. Until he was almost 40, this “founding figure of pop art” worked primarily as an abstract expressionist. Then came his breakthrough: Look Mickey, from 1961, borrowed an image of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse from a children’s book and launched a 35-year probe into the universe of ready-made imagery. Lichtenstein (1923–1997) was more than a parodist. He was “the first artist to give us a whiff of the Pinterest culture we live in today,” where “prepackaged images yield our most important contact with reality, and the rest of our experience then comes filtered through them.”

Maybe we read too much into his paintings, said Jonathan Wilson in TabletMag.com. Consider Whaam!, the 1963 Lichtenstein that depicts a comic-book fighter pilot blasting another plane from the sky. At the “wonderfully comprehensive” retrospective now hanging in Chicago, the painting still looks glorious, as do his huge close-ups of comic-book women filling the images’ speech bubbles with brief, breathless prose. But when Whaam! was hung in London in 1968, we were all pretty certain that Lichtenstein had intentionally exploded the lie that the violence of America’s distant wars was as harmless as that in a dime-store comic. “Nothing could have been further from his intention,” it turns out. The Lichtenstein we see here was interested in art only, not politics. He’s “an ironist,” not a social critic.

Still, it’s remarkable what he was able to achieve with his chosen idiom, said Kevin Nance in the Chicago Sun-Times. His monumental early painting of an automobile tire makes that mundane object “so strangely exquisite that you long to possess it.” When he turned to landscapes and sunsets, his cartoonish lines and Ben-Day-dot shadings didn’t prevent viewers from “experiencing a vestige of the sublime.” What’s more, he could be effective even when he wasn’t pleasing the eye, said Lori Waxman in the Chicago Tribune. His late nudes, from the mid-1990s, rework his bright, upbeat 1960s imagery into something more unsettling. Partly this is because “it’s hard to contemplate the brazen objectification of women.” But most striking is the way Lichtenstein’s trademark dots seem to have “come unhinged.” They’re no longer smile-inducing. Instead, they suggest “the proliferation of disease.”

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