EVENT HORIZON: Roy Lichtenstein’s Three Landscapes

Pop Art’s not remembered for landscapes, but Roy Lichtenstein made a number of them. Most famous are his sunrises, which use the bold and grotesquely simplified shapes of comic book abstraction to render nature a collection of easily legible glyphs. Less known are series such as the Landscapes, Seascapes, and Electric Seascapes, all of which combine jarring patterns or materials with a horizontal line suggesting a horizon. Like the sunrises, these works are concerned with the way that the graphic becomes the iconographic, when line and form emerge as symbols.

Roy Lichtenstein (1923–1997), Detail from Three Landscapes, 1970–71. Three-screen 35mm-film installation, color, silent; one minute (looped). © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

Lichtenstein’s film installation Three Landscapes, currently on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art, consists of three screens, each bisected by a black line that rocks back and forth, with suggestions of the sky on the top half of the screen and shots of sunlight-dappled water below. Each sky is rendered at a different level of abstraction: the middle screen, a photograph, shows white clouds across a clear blue sky; the screen on the right, a less detailed photograph, shows a simplified white bird against solid blue; the left comprises blue Ben-Day dots against a white background.

While the skies are static, the waters are in motion, with each lower section showcasing movement at a different level of detail. The water in the middle is a cross-section of the ocean, with fish swimming around and the orange of sun distributed laterally across the fishes’ bodies and on the plants. The water on the right is shot from afar, with waves rolling in and the orange of the sun distributed evenly across the surface. On the left screen, water is captured from only a few feet above, with ripples on the surface apparent, the orange of the sun appearing and disappearing in turn.

The middle screen contains the most jarring juxtaposition; it’s perspectivally impossible, the line suggesting the horizon abstract, a punchline. The screen on the right is the easiest on the eyes; the black line is placed where the horizon would be if the image on the bottom continued uninterrupted, and the image on the top is abstract enough for the eye to reconcile it with the water. The screen on the left is, with the only non-photographic imagery, the most abstract, but as such not nearly as visually upsetting as the middle screen.

What knits the piece together and gives it a kinetic pull is the rocking motion of the horizon lines. They all tilt back and forth according to the same pattern, but each is out of sync with the others. So they’re always echoing one another, or seeming to follow along, or presage. The rocking motion is a Kabuki impersonation of the motion of waves, and its cartoon simplicity mocks the messy organic ripples of the actual water, the whole piece making sport of the Beautiful and the Sublime. 

Contributor

Tom McCormack

TOM McCORMACK is an editor at Alt Screen and the Film and Electronic Art editor at Idiom. His writing has appeared in Film Comment, Moving Image Source, Cinema Scope, Rhizome, and other publications.

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