Tuesday, April 21, 2009

NYT article on Lichtenstein

In Sketches and Collages: Lichtenstein’s Workaday Musings
Published: April 17, 200

When Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) began making paintings of cartoon and comic book imagery in the 1960s, he rarely kept the preliminary drawings and collages in which he worked out composition and colors. He was happy to let them fall on the floor, where they were swept out with the trash. So it is entirely possible that Lichtenstein would not have approved of the present exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art. The show presents 65 of the artist’s later preliminary sketches, drawings and collages, from the 1970s through the ’90s, most of which were in the studio at the time of his death and are now in private collections.

HIS OWN DEVISING “Collage for Still Life With Reclining Nude” (1997) by Roy Lichtenstein.

“Lichtenstein in Process” is a fascinating and engrossing show providing a rare glimpse of the pop artist’s private working methods and creative process. Swift in execution, small in format and considerably more intimate than his finished paintings, Lichtenstein’s sketches, drawings and collages show the artist planning and arranging, experimenting with sources and compositional structures in search of something fresh, new and entirely his own. His finished pictures are not as simple or straightforward as they might look.

Take for instance “Interior With Exterior (Still Waters)” (1991), showing a pool and patio seen through a sliding glass door. The central source image is drawn from an architecture catalog into which the artist has collaged elements of a painting by the American abstract artist Clifford Still as well as, on the far wall, a parody of Lichtenstein’s own 1962 parody of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington. Here we have paintings within paintings.

On the basis of the artworks in this show, it seems that Lichtenstein was largely preoccupied during his final decades with two themes: interiors and nudes. Among the more interesting nudes here is “Beach Scene With Star Fish” (1995), a large, expansive beach scene filled with prancing, nude female comic book characters. The composition, based on Picasso’s “Bathers With Beach Ball” (1928), once again combines art historical imagery and cartoons with all sorts of visual odds and ends of the artist’s own devising.

Three raw pencil sketches, a more detailed colored sketch and a painted and printed collage on board (also preparatory) show the gradual evolution of this image. Especially noticeable is the way in which the artist oscillates back and forth with the placement of a beachside shed, along with a reversing of figures in the composition to get the right sense of balance and proportion.

What is really fascinating about these preparatory sketches, drawings and collages is that they reveal not just the inner workings of the artist’s mind but the way in which he actively sought to hide or remove any trace of his hand in the final work. In each successive stage the composition becomes increasingly stylized and mechanical, eventually taking on the appearance of commercial printing. They are meticulously handmade imitations of mass prints.

Lichtenstein often described himself and other pop artists as making “industrial paintings.” But it wasn’t always so, for he spent the first decade of his career in Ohio making Cubist and Expressionist paintings. He began teaching in upstate New York in the late 1950s and in 1960, then moved to Rutgers University in New Jersey where, influenced by his colleague Allan Kaprow, he began painting using cartoons and commercial printing techniques. His first one-man show, at the Castelli Gallery in 1962 in New York, was a sell-out.

One of the criticisms often leveled at Lichtenstein’s work is that it lacks originally. This is only partly true, for while most of his best-known artworks are studious copies of comic-book panels, he largely stopped this in 1965. And even though he continued to incorporate elements of comic imagery into his work for the rest of his career, the source imagery is increasingly transformed.

This transformation is especially visible in his paintings based on art historical sources. “Landscape With Scholar’s Rock” (1996), one of a series of Chinese-style landscapes, takes its inspiration from books on the gardens of China and Japan along with Chinese landscape painting. But the end result is something altogether different — the artist’s use of bold colors and large black Benday dots make the final image look like a faded ink-jet reproduction.

It is worth remembering that the works in this show are not finished and most probably were never meant for public display. They are the workaday musings of a great artist. Still, the exhibition does include one grouping of sketches and collages paired with a finished painting, “Interior With Nude Leaving” (1997), enabling viewers to see the culmination of the process. Made the year that he died, the title suggests that somehow the artist knew it was time to depart.

“Lichtenstein in Process,” Katonah Museum of Art, Route 22 at Jay Street, through Jun. 28. Information: (914) 232-9555 or katonahmuseum.org.

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