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Streetwise Feature: ‘Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective’ at AIC

Tue, Jun 12, 2012

The Art Institute of Chicago brings together nearly 160 works of art for its new exhibit Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, the largest showing of its kind ever compiled. Including pieces spanning more than four decades, this exhibit is the first major survey of the namesake artist’s work since his death in 1997. It is a remarkable, in-depth look at the long and fascinating career of the famed Pop artist.

Most known for his paintings of newsprint comics, this exhibit exposes Roy Lichtenstein’s impressive compositional and stylistic breadth. Starting with his early experimentations with Abstract Expressionist painting, the exhibit also includes striking works in black and white, sculptures in ceramic and metal, simplified ethereal landscapes, a gallery of paper works and sketches, and numerous paintings reinterpreting the recognizable works and styles of other artists. However, Lichtenstein did not simply replicate images; in addition to original compositions, he manipulated those he reproduced to heighten their dramatic presence with alterations to line-work, composition, scale, and color.

In the exhibit’s gallery progression, curator James Rondeau conveys a stylistic narrative largely free of the artist’s biography. However, a strong sense of Lichtenstein’s personality is impressed through the attention given to the work’s stylistic variations, transitions and preoccupations. Lichtenstein was an incredibly thoughtful creator and this is apparent throughout the retrospective.

The works from his black and white period depicting mundane objects are as breathtaking in their starkness and painstaking detail as the electric blues found in his romance comic paintings. Those comic-strip paintings must be seen in person to truly appreciate their pulsating color and the remarkable technical efforts that went into creating them. By placing mass-produced print imagery on a canvas, with vibrant coloring and painted in a method both mechanical and hand-made (using his well-known Ben-Day dot method), Lichtenstein challenged viewers to reconsider these “common” images’ artistic value.

Lichtenstein’s paintings of brushstrokes and explosions revisit his interest in Abstract Expressionism by capturing the conceptual dynamism artists like Jackson Pollock manifested through gesture paintings. The section containing these works acts as a primer to a gallery space entitled “Art History,” which is bound to be the most surprising work for those who only know Lichtenstein’s Pop art. Here are classic works by famed artists like Picasso, Matisse, and Mondrian recreated with Lichtenstein’s styling choices, once again reorienting how commonly recognized images can be seen through different lenses. “You’re not so much looking at a Lichtenstein that looks like a Picasso; you’re looking at a Picasso that looks like a Lichtenstein,” Rondeau said in an interview for art critic Tyler Green’s Modern Art Notes podcast.

However, it is not just the images he references, but styles and classic motifs as well. In the concluding galleries, his with Art Deco styling and studio paintings also illustrate his interest in early art movements. He explores landscapes and mirrors through simple, abstracted imagery. And concluding the exhibit, in the final years of his life, nudes in the style of his romance comic paintings and foggy Chinese landscapes with Ben-Day dots demonstrate an unyielding desire to apply his style in new ways.

In the aforementioned interview, Rondeau also stated: “Consistency of vision and the kind of conceptual dimensions to Roy’s program over fifty years, I think, is astonishing. … He never failed to find the next kind of intelligent or creative way to apply his ideas about painting in new ways.” The retrospective celebrates that bold, creative intellect marvelously.

Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective runs through September 3.

Written by: Barrett Newell
StreetWise Contributor

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