The Art World

Lucky Strokes

A luminous show of Lichtensteins.

by November 19, 2001

Roy Lichtenstein, the prince of Pop, who died in 1997, was heroically untempted by meaning. With spectacular sang-froid, he paraded themes of love and war in his early cartoon paintings. Later, he filleted the signature styles of modern masters from Monet to de Kooning as if they were only snazzy design ideas. Most outrageously, he turned his refrigerating gaze upon a fundamental cynosure of meaning in art: the painter's brushstroke, which comprehends the world in a gesture. All this is old news. And yet a large show entitled "Brushstrokes: Four Decades," at the Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery, surprises, with its cool majesty. Lichtenstein feels new again.

Many of the works—paintings, drawings, and sculptures, mainly from the nineteen-eighties—are unfamiliar. (All are from the artist's estate.) Working drawings provide modest revelations about Lichtenstein's studio practice—demonstrating, for example, that he would first make quick sketches, then project and render them on canvas as hard-edged designs. But no fresh information explains the show's impact, which breaks a resistance to Lichtenstein that has built up in me through decades of exposure to his predictable, relentlessly upbeat imagery. His renewed appeal seems a sign of the times. I think that many of us are hungry for classicism of an American kind. Things that began to seem monotonous in their perfection—including abstractions by Ellsworth Kelly, another steely hedonist who looks particularly strong nowadays—excite as blazons of enduring value.

Lichtenstein was born in Manhattan in 1923. After serving with the Army in the Second World War, he spent ten years in Ohio, teaching at Ohio State University, taking odd jobs, and raising a family. The character of his art during that period of obscurity is conveyed in a remarkably prescient review by the realist painter and critic Fairfield Porter, which appeared in ARTnews in 1952. Porter welcomed Lichtenstein as "a young newcomer" who "spreads one flat color next to another and lets it alone. It always works." Porter continued, "It almost seems that he has done it all before, in another life perhaps, so that now it is no trouble at all. He is a natural." Still, Lichtenstein remained little known until 1961, when he made his first painting directly from a cartoon, "Look Mickey," and was introduced to Andy Warhol by Leo Castelli. That year, he turned thirty-eight—pretty long in the tooth for a Young Turk.

Did Lichtenstein's frustrating early career give an aggressive edge to his mature art? I think so. On some level, he never ceased to be a bruised outsider. The earliest painting in the show, the miserable but interesting "Variations #7" (1959), suggests that his success was not foreordained. A blowsy pastiche of Abstract Expressionism, it deploys cheerful colors in flurried scrawls and juicy smears. Many short, parallel strokes are sandwiched together in compact ranks and stacks—a lively idea that attains no traction in the over-all frazzle. Plainly, the artist wants to deliver the pleasures of paint and color as directly as possible, but this modest desire is swamped by the imperatives of an overblown style.

By the late nineteen-fifties, the commanding examples of Pollock and de Kooning had spawned a "second generation" of grandiose pictorial rhetoricians who made up in attitude what they lacked in conviction. No faction could have been less congenial to Lichtenstein's shy, punctilious temperament. When he started lifting motifs from comic books, it was with the euphoria of liberation. Pop provided a deadpan mask for his ambition, behind which he could exercise his talent for almost subliminal nuances of sprightly form. The ordeal of his attempts to muster the virile bravura of Action painting found relief in mockery.

In the Pop revolution of the early sixties, the palace of high art was stormed by mild-mannered barbarians, who dispensed with the sophisticated ironies of their immediate forebears Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Rauschenberg's notorious erasure of a drawing by de Kooning and Johns's perversely sensitive paintings of flags and targets had expressed high-strung anxieties of populist influence. The Pop insurgents squared serious art with the larger culture by embracing—or, in the case of Lichtenstein's pseudo-Ben Day dots, simulating—techniques of mechanical reproduction. Traditions of modern art remained in force, but only as elements of a pragmatic new order. With the aplomb of a crack engineer, Lichtenstein showed that the visual rhetoric of comic strips, with minimal adjustments, could generate power and beauty to rival the art of museums.

It was with a competitive eye on art history that Lichtenstein conducted a brisk march through the conventional genres of portrait, still-life, landscape, and history painting, adapting them to his cartoon look as if he were translating the Great Books into slang. His first "Brushstroke" (1965), which was taken from a comic book entitled "Strange Suspense Stories," initiated a new genre. A subsequent painting in the series depicts a yellow swath with black "ridges" that efficiently describe a loaded brush's blobby attack, streaky course, and feathered finish. At one corner there's a raffish dribble, representing excess paint. The joke of an impetuous gesture, fussily portrayed, not only amuses but generates its own suspense. The big, bold swipe also stirs up a tumult of art-history associations, which are as vivid and yet inaccessible as sea life viewed from a glass-bottomed boat.

Lichtenstein soon dropped the brushstroke theme to concentrate on his schematic burlesques of canonical modern masters—Picasso, Matisse, Magritte, Léger, and so on. These are his weakest works, on the whole. Merely clever and handsome, they leach the emotional drama from images that are still affecting. Next to them, Lichtenstein's playfulness seems as callow as museum gift-shop souvenirs.

“Lucky Strokes” continues
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