The Art Institute of Chicago has recently mounted another of it's impressive special exhibitions, a retrospective of the work of Roy Lichtenstein. His early work from the 1950's was in the Abstract Impressionist style of the time. Apparently, many of these canvases were destroyed. Of those that survived the four on display reveal a young artist struggling to discover his own voice. The comic book inspired "dot" style he is most associated with eventually developed.
Some people, myself included, may at first find his highly technical work cold and antiseptic. Yet, as I moved through the exhibit his sense of humor began to be apparent revealing the humanity of the artist. This humor keeps the work from projecting the cynicism which seems to permeate some pop and modern art. He took the everyday and banal and used it as inspiration for his art. Ads and comic book panels were adjusted, realigned and reimagined as things of balance and harmony. While much of his work contains bold, bright color, golf balls and car tires become mesmerizing studies in black and white which draw the viewer into the image. A steaming cup of coffee is a muscular artistic statement in yellow and brown.
Initial reviews of his work were highly critical. One magazine questioned whether or not he was the "worst artist in America." Perhaps in response to this one piece shows a woman standing behind a man, both gazing at a painting, and the woman exclaiming, in Lichtenstein's trademark speech bubble, that the work is a masterpiece and soon his works will be desired all over New York.
I found myself beginning to be hypnotised by the comic book dots, evident in virtually every work. I marveled at the precision of these spots of paint. Later in the exhibition I learned that he used perforated steel panels as a sort of stencil to produce them. These same steel plates are used in a different manner in some sculptural three dimensional pieces. In some works a second layer of dots is laid over the first. Dots connecting with other dots creating a dense visual landscape of paint.
One gallery contains parodies, created by Lichtenstein, of the work of other artists. He declared that he admired that which he parodied. This is where his sense of humor is most evident. There are Monet's "Haystacks" reimagined in his dotted style. A Mondrian where two of the geometric spaces are filled with his dots as opposed to Mondrian's vivid blocks of color. A Picasso piece looks as if the Spanish master was inspired by Lichtenstein, rather than the other way around.
Four paintings of artists studios, one containing representations of his own works within the larger work, are reunited for the first time since 1974. Much of his later work, while retaining his trademark bold lines and dots, becomes less representational. Some appear like small segments of cartoon panels greatly enlarged. Many of the pieces in the exhibition are in private collections so rarely available for public viewing.
A special treat is the collection of works on paper. Many of these are studies for some of the larger, finished pieces on view. It gives the visitor the ability to see the progression of the artwork from it's original conception. In one trio of pieces a woman's face transitions from recognizable features to a series of lines and planes of color.
One irony of Lichtenstein's artistic vision is that the comics and ads which inspired his work are no longer composed of dots. In this digital age of high definition images we have gained clarity, but perhaps at a cost of losing a portion of our innocence.