On ViewThe Morgan Library & Museum
September 24, 2010 – January 2, 2011
I would have thought that this striking exhibition of Roy Lichtenstein’s black-and-white drawings from the 1960s would have made it even more impossible to access the thinking of an artist who abruptly rebooted his career in 1961. Abandoning the diminishing returns of the “touch” of Abstract Expressionism (and, to be sure, it had run its course in his work of the 1950s), he set out to achieve something much harder in both senses of the word. As he told Gene Swenson in 1963, “It was hard to get a painting that was despicable enough so that no one would hang it—everybody was hanging everything.” It would, of course, be nearly impossible for anything to look atrocious in the Morgan, but curator Isabelle Dervaux has done Lichtenstein’s work a great service by separating out 55 black and white drawings that were made as stand-alone works (the selection includes almost all of them), independent of his paintings, sculptures, and prints. The exhibition installed chronologically, and with just enough supporting materials to be useful, gives us an opportunity to receive these works with a mindset much closer than expected to how the artist, if not his audience, might have originally viewed them, regardless of just how gorgeous many of them are.
Originality, of course, is a critical yet complicated thing when it comes to Lichtenstein, and, appropriately, Dervaux smudges the beginning of the chronology by including two works from 1958: both “Donald Duck” and “Mickey Mouse III” give up their debt to de Kooning without a fight (it would take another 40 years or so before Joyce Pensato would start connecting with her killer punches) and it’s not a surprise to learn that Lichtenstein destroyed his paintings from these years. (On the other hand, my Los Angeles-influenced eyes made a connection with the contemporaneous work of John Altoon, but who knows?) One thing is sure: their presence makes 1961 hit even harder.
“It’s just a terrible looking couch and it’s so mechanical and unsympathetic…I couldn’t resist drawing that.” Made in blue felt-tip marker (which had been recently developed for commercial draftsmen), “Couch” (1961) retains the belligerence of its pictorial deficiency precisely because it was so masterfully produced, especially in its imperfections. The drawings that are included from this year give testimony to the quickness of Lichtenstein’s technical development, as well as the increasing sophistication of his compositional adjustments: from the borderline cuteness of works like “Airplane,” “Man with Coat,” and “Girl with Accordion,” to the tough yet graceful economy of “Finger Pointing,” one of the first drawings using the technique of pochoir, or stenciling, for his soon-to-be-signature Benday dot pattern. (The exhibition catalogue provides extensive information on the various screens that Lichtenstein produced to refine these patterns.) Derived from the famous World War I recruiting poster by James Montgomery Flagg, the drawing remains an arresting image while also functioning as an anything but subtle acknowledgment of us. (Dervaux suggests that the drawing may have been inspired by John F. Kennedy’s trademark use of the gesture.)
Even though I am quite familiar with Lichtenstein’s paintings from this period (full disclosure: in the early 1990s I worked as a researcher for a planned catalogue raisonné of his paintings), I wasn’t expecting that so many of these drawings would read as personally as they do, not (necessarily) in the biographical sense, but more in terms of providing material (including tactility) for an emotional response. This is the obvious point of the works that are based on comic books and their intertwined worlds of love and war: the drama of “Conversation” (1962), for example, which speaks volumes in its silent grisaille or, especially, the clichéd terror of “Jet Pilot” (1962), which is made far less clichéd by Lichtenstein’s archly formal revisions. The subject matter, however, only initiates this change of attitude; it is sustained, strangely yet appropriately enough, by a shift in technique from the active punch of pochoir to the passive back-and-forth of frottage, or, if you will, from push-and-pull to side-to-side.
This hardly means that Lichtenstein had gone soft by the end of the 1960s, a fate thwarted by the introduction of the image of the painterly brushstroke, a witty addition to his arsenal that would serve him well across a range of media, including large-scale sculpture. Drawings like “Brushstroke” (1965), and “Brushstrokes” (1966-68) demonstrate just how good Lichtenstein was at having it both ways, push-and-pull and side-to-side, awful and marvelous all at once. With that in mind, I very much appreciated the placement of these two drawings next to one of my all-time favorites: “Alka Seltzer” (1966), a work that brings everything in it—solid, liquid, and gas—back home as a rather refined antidote (like the hair of the dog) to despicability.