Roy Lichtenstein: Interiors

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through October 10

By Fred Camper

Pollock, Rothko, and even pop artist James Rosenquist search for the beautiful, the sublime. If you don’t love their paintings, you don’t “get” them. But Roy Lichtenstein, another founder of pop, is different. His cool, measured, precise pictures, painted to mimic the look of commercial printing on a greatly enlarged scale, produce a dual reaction. The revulsion that greeted his work of the early 60s–often hypertrophied copies of comic strip panels–was a response to Lichtenstein’s direct attack on the usual concept of fine art. Even the later work now being shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art–63 paintings, drawings, prints, collages, maquettes, and sculptures, mostly from the 1990s–has a disengaged, almost impersonal quality. The unpopulated, often overdecorated rooms of the wealthy that make up most of the show seem merely to affirm the fetishization of objects, even paintings. Yet Lichtenstein also undercuts the values these paintings superficially advance.

Consider how different the sculpture Bonsai Tree is from a real bonsai tree, with its small, elegant twists and turns, its trunk a fount of change and growth. Lichtenstein’s silver-barked tree by contrast feels frozen. But though his tree doesn’t look like it will ever grow or change, as a sculptural form it’s hardly dead. Denying the fractals of natural landscapes, enlarging and objectifying the bonsai’s curves and humps, it creates an odd but ultimately powerful tension between its organic twists and the bark’s limited detail and smooth metallic sheen. Its size–much larger than a typical bonsai tree–exaggerates the sculpture’s solidity and lack of organic texture. The key question to ask of Lichtenstein’s work is whether it comments on or simply replicates the sterility of mass-manufactured objects. The details of the work provide the answer: Bonsai Tree is about the making of a tree into an inanimate yet evocative object.

Lichtenstein once said, “I’m not interested in [trying] to teach society anything.” Yet the collectors who buy his work, who live in rooms not unlike the ones he depicts, might easily see his paintings as validations of their lifestyles, while those same interiors can also be seen as prisons. The tree in the painting Interior With Bonsai Tree is even less lively than the sculpture, but it’s bursting with movement compared to the couches, chair, and neat, cartoonish fire in the fireplace.

Absurdly enlarging details that were meant to add texture to commercially printed images is the equivalent of creating an oversize but underdetailed bonsai tree: the organic becomes the solid, the mechanical, the geometrical. In many images, Lichtenstein’s overall patterning almost overwhelms the objects depicted. The mask in Interior With African Mask is a tiny black-and-white form on a distant shelf, while the image is dominated by a large sectional sofa shaded with the usual diagonal black lines–which don’t change even when the angle of the cushion does, or when they’re used to shade a rug. Lichtenstein’s lines, borrowed like his dots from 19th-century printing techniques devised by Benjamin Day and others, have taken on a life of their own. Again a verdant plant occupies part of the picture, its irregular green seeming to do battle with the window’s grid of panes. Yet despite the angled sofa and the open entryway to another room, the space seems flattened, the background plant, table, and window all apparently pressing forward and turning the image into a unified, almost decorative field.

The mirror in Wallpaper With Blue Floor Interior, a large screenprint, reflects the room back to us in a way that makes it seem smaller and more cramped. The floor’s blue-and-white faux wood grain fills the eye with busy, empty patterns, and the mirror itself has black diagonal lines across it, emphasizing its surface. The work made me think of some of the 50s melodramas of Douglas Sirk, whose interiors also create an illusion of depth but bring the background forward, almost to the point of seeming to crush the characters. Sirk’s vision can be terrifying: in his first significant interview the filmmaker used the expression “through a glass darkly” to describe his work. But Lichtenstein’s widow says in the show’s catalog, “Roy saw through a glass lightly.”

There is indeed a wry, tongue-in-cheek quality to most of these works. The sculpture Chair, Table, and Flower Pot arranges painted bronze objects in a flat plane–except for two of the table legs, one angled toward us and the other away. This “depth effect” actually emphasizes the work’s overall flatness. Indeed, the little jokes of the paintings and prints and their relatively cheerful colors, carefully balanced compositions, and elegant use of line and shade add up not to a vision of modern horror but to works poised on a knife-edge: they can be seen as uncritically replicating modern interiors in the style of modern commercial printing or as subtly commenting on the reductive side of our culture, underlining and even aestheticizing the way that interior decorating can destroy the autonomy of individual objects as it pulls them all together to make a room. Or, perhaps most accurately, they can be seen as doing a little of both. Rather than seeking to enrapture, Lichtenstein winks at us, the coolness and almost mechanical anonymity of his images allowing him to have it both ways.

This series began when Lichten-stein, an artist in residence in Rome in 1989, focused not on the city’s great past art but on images of room interiors he found in the yellow pages, cut out, and saved. In 1991 in Los Angeles he began making prints of interiors; similar paintings soon followed. So a logical place to start here is with the prints, unfortunately displayed mostly in the exhibit’s second half. Less harsh than the paintings, they’re composed mostly of soft colors, giving them a curious gentleness, an almost Muzak-like tone. Wallpaper With Blue Floor Interior is quite different, with some of the power of the paintings: the graphic assertiveness of the shapes and their thick, glossy black outlines seem to establish a struggle between the autonomy of the object and the room’s overarching patterns.

The nudes in the show also seem to struggle to assert their potential eroticism, though they’re consistently integrated into each image’s patterns. (The justification for including nudes seems to be that they usually occupy interiors and that they grew out of a few paintings of nudes on the walls of Lichtenstein’s early interiors.) Nude With Bust shows a kneeling woman rendered in black lines and dots except for her red lips and green eyes; the bust near her is of another woman whose blond hair echoes the yellows in the rest of the picture, connecting her to the decor. This bust is closer to us than the nude, and the angle of her head is more striking, further reinforcing Lichtenstein’s theme: pattern dominates living forms. At the same time Nude With Bust is also balanced: the nude on the right is echoed by and contrasted with an abstract blue shape on the left. But aside from specific oppositions, what finally energizes this picture–and all the others–is the same contrast that vivifies Bonsai Tree: between solidity and tiny differences, between the assertive power of the objects in a composition and the unifying and freezing of all the image’s energies.

The museum also includes some of Lichtenstein’s sources, including the comic book panels he apparently used for the design of the two heads in Nude With Bust. These panels are displayed with the pages of the comics they were cut from, and it’s interesting to see the faces Lichtenstein chose not to use, which are often contorted in extremes of emotion; the faces Lichtenstein selected are cool, cipherlike–as is his art.

Lichtenstein was born in New York City in 1923 and lived there, or nearby, for much of his life; he died two years ago. He began making art in his teens but didn’t produce the paintings based on comic book imagery for which he’s best known until the early 60s. By then he’d been teaching art for more than a decade and had painted in several styles, including abstract expressionism. But at that point, like other founders of pop art, he turned his back on many previous traditions: he told an interviewer in 1963 that he was “anti-contemplative, anti-nuance, anti-getting-away-from-the-tyranny-of-the-rectangle, anti-movement-and-light, anti-mystery, anti-paint-quality, anti-Zen, and anti all of those brilliant ideas of the preceding movements which everyone understands so thoroughly.” The same year he also remarked that, where 20th-century art had been “utopian,” pop art “looks out into the world; it appears to accept its environment.”

In later discussions of his work he usually emphasized his paintings’ abstract qualities rather than their banal content: he said that he worked on his canvases upside down as often as right side up and that he viewed them in a mirror to see whether his compositions held up when flipped. And indeed these images work well partly because of their innate balance and careful use of color. In Wallpaper With Blue Floor Interior, the mirror contains a reflection of a red pillow whose real edge is only barely visible to the right; the brightest thing in the image, the reflected pillow is the print’s “hottest” element, further underlining the theme of removal and distance: seen through a glass lightly, the world has been largely drained of vitality.

Also converted to elements of sterile decor are the paintings by various famous artists–including Lichtenstein himself–on the walls of these rooms. Interior With T’Aime includes several paintings, among them a pseudo Kandinsky whose shapes are more schematic and whose imagery is more explicitly astronomical than Kandinsky’s–nor did Kandinsky employ the Lichtenstein-like dots and lines included here. Next to it hangs a faux Hans Hofmann, with his usual juxtaposition of squares of color with more expressionistic patterns. But he didn’t outline his squares with the cartoony black lines Lichtenstein uses, which completely defeat Hofmann’s purpose–creating a relationship between apparent opposites–by walling off the squares from the rest of the picture. To the right is a fragment of what looks like a Lichtenstein.

Here paintings become unified with the rest of the decor–the black lines on the couch and floor continue into the Kandinsky, as if they were part of some overriding grid, expressing the idea that what matters to the art collector is the overall appearance of his rooms, not individual paintings. The room itself has the same bright, light optimism that pervades many works here: the diverse colors and shapes all meld fairly smoothly, suggesting that the collector’s unifying vision may not be altogether a bad thing. Finally, the fact that the Lichtenstein is larger than any of the other pictures creates a little joke, combining self-aggrandizement with parody: certainly the artist is aware of the way he turns other painters’ works into versions of his own. In effect Lichtenstein acknowledges the limits of his style, admitting that he converts everything he sees into similar patterns. He may have begun his career hoping to look “out into the world,” even if his subject was media-made images, but near the end of his life he admits that he’s trapped in his own vision.

This admission is carried to a stunning, even poetic extreme in the show’s greatest piece, the four-part Large Interior With Three Reflections. A canvas more than 30 feet long hung on one side of a narrow gallery depicts three adjacent rooms with all the usual trappings–sofas, chairs, potted plants, windows, paintings. On the opposite wall, three smaller paintings are apparently “mirrors” reflecting parts of the scene–but not photographic renditions. Instead, like the mirrors with black lines in Wallpaper With Blue Floor, each is covered with diagonal bands that obscure the original image, breaking it up with Lichtenstein’s characteristic lines and dots as well as white spaces.

The interiors on the long canvas are not Lichtenstein’s best. They lack the foci of attention–often a distant corner, a window that seems to come forward, or a small prop like the red pillow–around which the other compositions pivot. The “mirrors” are what make this piece moving: they redefine Lichtenstein’s customary patterns as interfering noise. These broken images are elegant in themselves, visions of interpenetrating fields that reminded me of later works by James Rosenquist. But they also seem to acknowledge the way the artist’s style acts as a screen that cuts him off from the world he spoke of in 1963. Reflecting the Lichtenstein-designed room, the mirrors show only a pattern book of his styles. Heroic abstractionists who thought their paintings could transport the viewer to heaven or their own secular paradise would never have made such a self-abnegating admission.

This exhibit is genuinely worth seeing, but there are a number of problems with its presentation. It doesn’t make chronological sense for the prints to be mostly hung more than halfway through; also, because they aren’t as strong as the paintings, they’re something of a letdown at that point. Other aspects of the show are inconsistent: while some related works are placed together, others are not. The collage that served as a kind of sketch for Interior With African Mask is placed next to it, but the small print Blue Floor is several rooms away from Wallpaper With Blue Floor Interior.

And though the sketches and maquettes for pieces in the show are interesting, this kind of exhaustiveness is more appropriate to a carefully assembled retrospective with a scholarly catalog and wall labels that describe the artist’s working process. Despite MCA director Robert Fitzpatrick’s helpful introduction to the show’s catalog, it’s a pretty lightweight affair whose text consists mostly of reminiscences from people who knew Lichtenstein. Some of these are interesting–but the catalog neglects such basics as when and where the artist was born (although it does give the date and place of birth of his longtime dealer, the recently deceased Leo Castelli). The absence of original research and well-argued justification for this selection of works, the show’s haphazard organization, and the ease with which Lichtenstein’s work might be mistaken for less-than-serious art, combined with his relative popularity, give the impression of a slapped together “summer lite” show, an approach the MCA has also appeared to take under earlier administrations.

Perhaps some of the show’s problems are due to the fact that the curators–Fitzpatrick and the artist’s widow, Dorothy Lichtenstein–are not disinterested scholars. There’s wonderful art here, but it doesn’t seem to have been selected and installed with tremendous care. And these late works, seen alone, make Lichtenstein seem a facile producer of tongue-in-cheek images rather than an artist of depth. A wider range of periods and subjects, perhaps including work from his abstract-expressionist phase, would have given a clearer sense of the integrity of Lichtenstein’s compositions.

In the past decade New York has seen superb, carefully researched and installed retrospectives of such figures as Mondrian, Malevich, Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Nauman, Rauschenberg, and Tapies that inspired viewers to reevaluate the artist’s work. None of these exhibits reached Chicago–and worse, our museums rarely mount one-person shows of 20th-century artists with anything approaching that degree of depth. Chicago needs to stop talking about being a world-class city–imagine a sign in France reading “Paris, a World-Class City”–and start acting like one.