We took a quick, post-holiday trip to Washington, D.C. to kick-off the new year refreshed and reinvigorated. At the top of our art marathon to-do list was the Roy Lichtenstein retrospective at the National Gallery of Art—the first full survey of the artist’s career since his death in 1997.
While his entire oeuvre deserves celebration, the High Pop canvases of his breakthrough in the early 1960s are his most revolutionary and, in my opinion, his best.
Words that come to mind when recalling these paintings include: cool, flat, banal, detached, deadpan, slick, tacky, vapid, dumb. In the best possible way, of course. His was not an idealized view of the world. It was a celebration of life in the moment, rendered in a language that was common and contemporary. Whether it was a faithful reproduction of a comic strip or a consumer product you may had seen just days earlier, Lichtenstein was relaying a message back to you in the quickest way possible. Why waste time confusing things with silly stuff like metaphors, emotion, or even abstraction when there was a brave new world to report on?
As a result, these paintings function less like windows and more like mirrors—reflecting a familiar object in real time rather than translating a foreign experience from a far-off land.
The canvases are bold and blunt and they feature images reproduced with a machine-like precision that leaves no indication that they were made by hand. At that point in the trajectory of art there was no need to even hint at artistic ability. Artists had spent centuries flaunting their technical skills (and thus their egos) while trying to convey something meaningful. Clearly it was time to move on. The fast pace of contemporary life demanded a quick, reactionary approach—one where interpretation would just complicate and delay the situation. The Ben-Day dot pattern lifted from the offset printed source material remained a crucial part of the work too, functioning as a sign that the painting was not a precious picture but a glorious object (or product) instead.
After a few years producing work in this mode, Lichtenstein had said what he needed to say and moved on to more traditional, representational imagery. Though still dressed up in his signature comic book style, gone was the raw immediacy of these early paintings.