Like almost all of Roy Lichtenstein’s iconic Pop Art paintings, the current retrospective of the artist’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago is big. With over 160 works on display the exhibition, five years in the making, brings together the largest collection of Lichtenstein’s work to date. Without a doubt, Lichtenstein has mass appeal. His bright, bold canvases that look like comic strips and advertisements are some of today’s most recognizable works of art, but what this show also reveals is Lichtenstein’s lesser-known work. For instance his early attempts at abstract expressionism and his later send-ups of nearly every genre, style, and period of art history (including seascapes and Chinese scrolls), revealing his interest in images well beyond those of the mass-produced commercial images of the 1960s.
The exhibition, organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Tate Modern, London, is arranged chronologically and divided by theme. The first room of the exhibition is filled with paintings from the 1950s that demonstrate Lichtenstein’s attempts at Abstract Expressionism—the style du jour revolutionized by earlier artists like De Kooning and Pollack. With a few exceptions, all of these canvases lack a certain energy or depth. It is only when he starts to incorporate ben-day dots or areas of parallel stripes with the wide, gestural brushstrokes that the paintings become interesting. You get the sense that he was on to something, and as you move into the next room you see where he begins to hit his stride.
The diptych of a woman’s leg—she’s wearing a blue pump—pressing on a “step-can” garbage can is our introduction to the art works that start to look like the Lichtenstein we all know. Parodying advertisements of domestic products, Lichtenstein depicts a single cup of coffee—the coffee slowing pouring into the cup from an unknown source; laundry detergent (my personal favorite); and a ball of twine. Other objects depicted are a golf ball, hot dog and enormous Compositions-brand notebook (Composition II).
Composition II because it fills the entire surface of the canvas looks more like a gigantic notebook than a painting of a notebook, and in a way acts like a Pop Art stand against Abstract Expressionism. The all-over quality of the marbled pattern of the notebook is reminiscent of Pollack’s drip paintings, but Lichtenstein has reduced this style to an everyday object—a trivial notebook, no less—with the name field (a place to identify the artist) left blank. I don’t see this necessarily as an attack against the earlier style, but perhaps an introduction to a new wave. Later in the exhibition there is a quote by Lichtenstein. He says, “The things I’ve parodied, I actually admire.” This is an artist who was not afraid to draw attention or poke fun at his own style either. On the wall adjacent to Compositions II, the black and white painting Magnifying Glass depicts a glossy magnifying glass on top of an entire surface of ben-day dots. The dots that are magnified revealing, unlike the emotional, gestural strokes of the Abstract Expressionists, that there is in fact nothing here that you didn’t already know about.
In the next room are the paintings Lichtenstein is arguably most famous for – his comic book war heroes and women in distress. This room is fun. It is big and bold and loud. You would be hard pressed to walk in and not smile at paintings with titles like VAROOM! or OHH…ALRIGHT…. Of course, having seen reproductions of these paintings hundreds of times, it is exciting to see the paintings in person and to see them all together. But quite frankly, I found myself wandering to the next rooms rather quickly.
The largest (and longest) room in the exhibition is reserved for a section titled “Art History 1951-1990.” Here, you see Lichtenstein’s parodies of famous paintings from nearly every era of art history. Done in ben-day and half-tone dots, there are Picasso’s cubist-style women, Monet’s haystacks, Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington. The list goes on and on, and into the next room where we see brass sculpture (a medium that Lichtenstein is much less known for) that looks very similar to designs by Frank Lloyd Wright. Some of the paintings raise interesting questions about influence, while other just seem like the artist was having fun.
Later in the exhibition you find a small room with sketches and other works on paper. These pieces expose Lichtenstein’s process. You can see how meticulously he planned his paintings, working always from reproductions and never from originals. I found this section of the exhibition really engaging, and wished there had been more moments like this. On the Art Institute’s website you can view Lichtenstein paintings side-by-side with some of the work that it parodied. For instance, Lichtenstein’s, Haystacks next to Monet’s, Stacks of Wheat (End of Day, Autumn). To be able to actually see that works side-by-side in the gallery, or to see sketches and studies hanging next to final works, would have made the experience that much richer.
I also wish that the exhibition offered a greater sense of context—examples of comic books; advertisements; or works by other Pop Art artists—to help give a fuller picture of the art, images and era that influenced his work.
My wishes aside, this large-scale exhibition, featuring this many famous as well as unexpected works by an artist as loved as Lichtenstein is both impressive and entertaining. As the exhibition’s tagline says “He Made Art Pop,” so too does this exhibition.
Mary E. DeYoe is a poet, painter, and freelance arts writer. She lives in Chicago.