He raised comics to high art Appreciation: A shy man, Roy Lichtenstein paid homage to the art of the past with his exuberant works.

October 01, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

There are other famous pop artists, of course, Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist and Claes Oldenburg notable among them. But of them all, Andy Warhol (of the Brillo boxes and the Campbell soup cans) and Roy Lichtenstein (of the comic strips) are the most identified with the movement. And they were in many ways complete opposites.

Though Warhol's is the better-known name right now, it's impossible at this point to tell which is the greater artist. That will be for the ages to decide. But it's nowhere near impossible to tell which is the more likable, both in his art and in his persona. Lichtenstein, who died Monday, wins hands-down.

Warhol was the star who wouldn't talk. Always in the public eye but notably reticent about his work, he left interviewers frustrated and critics and public alike tending to begrudge him his -- let's face it -- justified fame. Although he could be polite and gentle in person, his public image was cool, deadpan, blase.

Lichtenstein was shy and self-effacing. He didn't seek the limelight. But he could and on occasion did talk about his work intelligently, thoughtfully. He seems to have been a person who didn't necessarily relish fame but recognized the obligations that went with it. So even we who didn't know him are left now with a sense of personal as well as creative loss.

And, not surprisingly, the art of these two pop giants leaves much the same impression that the men themselves do. There was much of the negative about Warhol's pop. Those Brillo boxes and Campbell's soup cans communicate not only that anything can be art but also that art is nothing special, something that anyone could do. Add to this his obsession with death -- the pictures of Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, car crashes, electric chairs -- and you have a depressing art. Appropriate to the age, undeniably, but not especially likable.

Lichtenstein's art, on the other hand, leaves a thoroughly positive impression. His comic-strip pictures, such as "Okay, Hot-Shot, Okay" (1963) and "The Melody Haunts My Reverie ..." (1965) and "Whaam" (1965) deal with war and violence, with love and longing, but, oddly enough, not negatively. They seem to say that everyday people can be heroes, and that your emotions and mine are just as important as those of the grand and the storied. These images don't lower art to the level of the comic strip but raise the comic strip to the level of high art.

The reason they strike that note is due partly to their high degree of craftsmanship. Lichtenstein's art making was painstaking and effortful. His paintings were the end product of preliminary drawings and collages. They are finished, and they look finished. One senses the importance of craft to their making. Fine art is still fine in Lichtenstein's world.

And it is the continuation of a great tradition, as his repeated bows to the past of art attest. Warhol, too, made bows to the past -- one need only think of his "The Last Supper" at the Baltimore Museum of Art to be reminded of that. But -- and perhaps it's the result of his flippant public image -- he often seemed to be defying or making light of the canons and traditions of high art.

Not so Lichtenstein, who repeatedly paid his debt to those canons and traditions. His works on the subject of the brush stroke, such as "White Brushstroke II" (1965) and "Yellow Brushstroke" (1985), can be seen as satires on abstract expressionist gesture. They are gesture frozen, a contradiction in terms. But even so, they are not nasty satire and, in their imitational aspect, they are a form of flattery. They amount to what he called his 1983 sculpture in the form of four brush strokes, "Homage to Painting."

His "Expressionist Head" (1980) bows to another 20th century movement. His "Girl with Beach Ball III" (1977) pays homage to Picasso, surrealism and cubism all in one. His "Cow Triptych (Cow Going Abstract)" (1974) refers to a work by the Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg. But its three panels, which begin with a cow and end with a geometric abstraction, also give a little lesson in how abstraction comes from representationalism and argues that the two have much in common: lines, shapes, colors, composition for instance. It makes viewers feel more familiar and comfortable with abstraction.

His "Bedroom at Arles" (1992), an updated version of van Gogh's famous 1888 painting of his bedroom, plays with the century between the two and shows how the past and present can be one. One wall and two pictures on another wall employ the Benday dots used in comic strips and by Lichtenstein. The floor's wavy lines recall the woodcuts of expressionists, who trace their lineage back to van Gogh. The earlier artist's rush seats have become 20th century tubular chairs, and van Gogh's floppy shirts and towel have become businessmen's white shirts and the towel as geometric abstraction. There are other differences, but the overall image is unmistakably, proudly indebted to van Gogh.

Art changes, Lichtenstein asserted, but it cannot nor should it want to escape the glories of its past. In that acknowledgment hiswas a generous art. In that generosity was an expression of the humanity Lichtenstein's work possesses and communicates. It's an art viewers enjoy, in part because it makes them feel better about art, and the world, and themselves.

That's why we're grateful for this art, and why we miss its maker.

Pub Date: 10/01/97

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