Roy Lichtenstein’s name is linked with his signature comic-book images of women, their thoughts rising in text bubbles above tentacles of tousled hair, mounds of tears leaking from their eyes. But “Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective” at the National Gallery has a different take.
In the exhibit, the comic-book women from the 1960s occupy just one room.
Lichtenstein (1923-1997) was so prolific there are a lot of ways to view his output. (The National Gallery show has 135 works.) His signature style, of course, remains constant from the early 1960s, when he began exploring mass-media conventions of rendering three-dimensional objects, with three-color printing and screens of Benday dots.
But the dots were less depersonalizing than you might think. One frequent misapprehension about Pop Art, and Lichtenstein’s work, is that because the painter adopted the language of mechanical reproduction, his works are mass-producible themselves.
The National Gallery show, in going beyond the stereotype, shows that Lichtenstein was in many ways a traditionalist: His paintings are old-fashioned representations in paint, on canvas, with a physicality that can’t fully be communicated in reproductions. Even the dots have a presence (as a catalogue essay by Harry Cooper, the National Gallery’s contemporary art curator, illuminates).
The first three works you see emphasize this physicality, from the painterly surface of the ceiling in “Artist’s Studio ‘Look Mickey’ ” (1973) to the textured, slightly scored silver panel in “Entablature” (1975) to the vivid corporeality of “Galatea,” (1990) a sculpture cutting the artist’s signature sensuous black lines through the gallery air.
Lichtenstein’s work is not simply about conventions of reproduction like print screens and dots; it’s about the artistic depiction of those conventions. And what animates it is not solely its inherent social criticism, but the tension between the individuality of the painter’s hand and eye and the impersonality of what he uses them to illustrate. This tension runs through the whole show, and is what made it such a delight, even a revelation.