ART REVIEW: Guild Hall Lichtenstein Show Stretches Viewers’ Understanding

By Charles Riley

Just when art lovers thought they had the Pop chapter firmly in hand, an exhibition as refined as "Roy Lichtenstein: Between Sea and Sky," curated by Christina Strassfield of Guild Hall with the collaboration of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, comes along to stretch us.

The first shock comes from the little seascapes and sunsets collaged beginning in 1964 with Rowlux, a plastic-coated reflective paper generally associated with little girls’ barrettes and the decorative siding of snare drums. Lichtenstein used this material in his efforts to find a way to get the shimmering opalescence of a marine sky onto the wall; it is a far cry from the flat primaries of standard Pop.

"Sailboat" by Roy Lichtenstein, 1981. Magna on canvas, 50 x 70 inches. Private collection. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

"Sailboat" by Roy Lichtenstein, 1981. Magna on canvas, 50 x 70 inches. Private collection. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

Lichtenstein was a magnificent teacher of art as well as art history, and when I had the good fortune to work on a catalogue for one of his exhibitions, he made sure I understood the importance of regarding his painting as essentially abstract. He delighted in painting and making sculpture out of explosions or dripping brushstrokes, freezing the kinetic in a cartoon-inflected diagrammatic image that logically contends with the entropic nature of the subject.

The seascapes, sunrises, sunsets and shimmering moonlit water in the current show, especially the elusive paintings and lithographs of a river, are all charming examples of the impossibility of pinning Heraclitean flux to the wall.

Each of the works in the Guild Hall exhibition labors hard to synthesize two vastly different types of mark-making. They are dominated by the congealed “cartoon brush strokes” (the artist’s term) tumbling across a blindingly white background. The stiffly outlined strokes are challenged by “real” brushstrokes, made with rags soaked with diluted paint, balled and swiped with great care to and fro in an arc over the canvas.

"Sailboat" by Roy Lichtenstein, 1981. Magna on canvas, 50 x 70 inches. Private collection. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

"Sailboat" by Roy Lichtenstein, 1981. Magna on canvas, 50 x 70 inches. Private collection. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

This, the chronology informs us, is a throwback to his earliest abstractions, dabbed and swept with rags wrapped around his wrist. The biggest of these is River Scene (1987) and it seems "unresolved," a victory of the concept over the execution. Still,
one of the things I most admired about Lichtenstein the person was his work ethic and willingness to challenge himself.

The exhibition is accompanied by assiduously researched, intelligently designed and beautifully printed catalogues with essays, footnotes, biography and a meticulous chronology.  These are invaluable aids, as several crucial studio secrets are vital to an understanding of the show. Consider this gem from James dePasquale about the “circular movement” at the center of the tricky sailboat and river paintings:

“There tends to be a drawing within the drawing or painting, and Roy worked outward from that. It’s a circular matrix, which he drew before he got the image going, because its function was to unify an area.”

That is the handle needed for the most difficult compositional problems in the show.

BASIC FACTS: "Roy Lichtenstein: Between Sea and Sky," August 8 – October 12, 2015, at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street, East Hampton, NY 11937. www.GuildHall.org

To read more of this review: “Guild Hall Lichtenstein Show Stretches Viewers Understanding” by Charles A. Riley II.

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