Pop Artist Reflects on His Life in Prints
Goode, Stephen, Insight on the News
Although prints - lithography and other reproducible art - lack the market value and high drama of oil paintings, they con reveal much about an artist's vision, as is the case with Roy Lichtenstein.
Several years ago, critics complained when the National Gallery of Art mounted a show of Andrew Wyeth's Helga series, which many found inferior. Similar grumbling albeit relatively subdued) preceded the Oct. 30 opening of an exhibition of 91 prints by Roy Lichtenstein who, along with Andy Warhol, became famous in the 1960s as a representative of Pop Art.
But curator Ruth Fine, head of the museum's division on modern prints and drawings, has done her job well. This is an exciting show covering the artist's work from 1948 to the present. The later prints, in particular, display a playful lyricism that has become the artist's hallmark.
Pop artists, first labeled "The New Realists" and, more awkwardly, "The Factualists" because they declared themselves in opposition to the abstract movement, took popular culture as their subject - movie stars, soup cans, cartoon characters. Art historians sometimes date Pop Art's appearance with a 1956 Lichtenstein lithograph titled Ten Dollar Bill - a sign of things to come as other artists tackled common yet sacrosanct items, including the American flag.
"The handsome man and the pretty girl [in advertisements] is a kind of prototype in a classical way," Lichtenstein once said, commenting on the relationship between commercial and fine art. More important, that prototype "is developed and believed in by the culture" out of which it arises. If Renaissance artists exploited ancient myths and Christian iconography, then contemporary artists should co-opt the images of their own times - Mickey Mouse and Popeye. Art critics denounced such subject matter as unworthy of serious art; but for the artists themselves, "serious" art had long since dried up in dusty museums. "Pop redeemed the world in an intoxicating way," wrote Arthur C. Danto, art critic for the Nation.
But it wasn't until 1962, with his first commissioned print, a black-and-white etching of a light switch titled On, that Lichtenstein found his guiding light. Inspired by comic-book art, he mimicked the technology that produced them, creating prints that seemed composed of benday dots, a method of reproducing photographs and engravings developed by American printer Benjamin Day. One of Lichtenstein's best-known works, Sweet Dreams, Baby!, could be a frame from the Sunday funnies - a large fist socks a man's jaw, the word POW! punctuates the blow, a balloon caption exclaims, "Sweet Dreams, Baby!"
More wry than rancorous or sarcastic, Lichtenstein's wit was imbedded in the very nature of his subjects: beautiful blondes singing "Stardust" to an unseen audience, a reverie, as the 1965 work is titled, that seems hokey and effecting at once. After rendering Ten Dollar Bill, Lichtenstein told the press, "The idea of counterfeiting money always occurs to you when you do lithography. …