Sunday, July 15, 2012

Roy Lichtenstein at the Art Institute

Roy Lichtenstein’s introduction of commercial graphics and popular cartoon imagery into the black-tie artworld was such a spectacular and immediate success in 1961, one might wonder just how long his 15 minutes of fame was going to last. Which was probably a question he asked himself as he devoted the following decades to riffing on canonical art as well as comic books. It was a successful strategy, and without it, I doubt we would now have such an extensive career retrospective in a major museum. The exhibition’s program notes tell us that “he explored just about every art historical style out there”, but mostly he stayed within canonical modernism: Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Brancusi, Mondrian, etc, with a final venture into Chinese landscape. All of it chopped up and processed in something of a graphic art meatgrinder, transforming everything to a clean, sleek, decorative style that suits a white cube, modern living space as smoothly as a Breuer chair. But does this work challenge or celebrate that process? Or does it just accept it – as one might accept the other consequences of modern life like air pollution, global warming, periodic financial crashes, and mindless chatter on radio and television? Despite those concerns, many of these productions do look pretty good, often with a hint of whimsy that can’t help but turn a frown upside down. And so he joins Jasper Johns and Gerhard Richter as the only post-war painters to have had something like a career retrospective at the Art Institute since 1980, which seems to recognize photography as the major vehicle for contemporary expression. In the 31 years following 1980,. the museum has given solo exhibits to 111 photographers but only 33 painters from the entire 20th Century. . The sensitive touch of a brush to a surface just doesn’t seem to be so important any more, and all it provided for Lichtenstein’s work was an occasional decorative flourish, as he seemed intent on making his pieces appear to have been mechanically produced. This is the kind of antiseptic nihilism that prominent Chicago artists have been reacting against for 50 years. We like our juvenile nihilism to appear more gritty and soulful.