By Geneva Gamez
If you’re a fan of Roy Lichtenstein’s work, you may be willing to take a trip to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and check it out, with the holidays around the corner this makes for a nice getaway. Besides having the unique opportunity to experience a beautiful city, you will enjoy of a two-fold benefit because, SFMOMA is the only venue in the U.S. hosting this major exhibition with over sixty-five of Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings, dating from the beginning of his career as an artist to the very last pieces before his death in 1997.
Lichtenstein is known as one of America’s foremost Pop artists who first captured the world’s attention in the sixties with his signature style of painting that borrowed from mass culture specially that of comic books and advertising- to bring the ultimate feel of commercial printing to fine art.
Born in New York in 1923, Lichtenstein passed away at the age of 73 from pneumonia, leaving us a trail of warnings about the early symptoms of commercialism. Lichtenstein was intrigued by America’s ideal world of consumerism and generic idea of women. He was fascinated and at the same time trivial about the esthetics found in comic strips and advertising. Aspects of these themes were recurring in his pieces through open and at the same time subtle criticism of America’s mass culture and the naïve belief in consumption.
To criticize this way of American life, Lichtenstein exaggerated the portrayal of women according to Hollywood propaganda and society itself in his series of comics. He would use altered bright colors, especially yellow to paint women’s blonde hair this would be the dominant color in many of his comic strip paintings of the ideal American woman. By 1962 Lichtenstein had developed his trademark style, painting in the form of a comic-strip frame. In famous works like Hopeless (1963) and Whaam! (1963), he borrowed the bright colors, flat forms, simple scenes, and printing processes of the newspaper comic and expanded them to the large canvas, right down to the “Ben Day” dots and dialogue balloons.
Lichtenstein’s struggle of reaching perfection in an identical commercial reproduction manner through these dots is evident in his early work. These dots represent his successful attempt at producing advertising and propaganda within fine art, he would use popular products such as laundry detergents, tires, food, etc. to paint an unlabeled version of the product. However, his point was to show how inflicted labels had become in our society that people didn’t need labels to recognize a popular product. The dots became so perfected over time they were almost gone unseen, this furthered Lichtenstein’s belief that people were attracted to visual advertising. However, it was never clear whether Lichtenstein was mocking the banality of modern culture or finding beauty in the ordinary.
In 1969, inspired by brochures and ads by several glass and mirror manufacturer’s in his neighborhood, Lichtenstein began to explore reflections more in detail than showed in his previous work. From this exploration, blossomed the Mirror Paintings (1969) series calling on the essence of reality and illusion. In analogy to his first Pop Art paintings, which had been reproductions of comic strip images, this series were based on catalogues, ads and pictures from the yellow pages. Interestingly, Lichtenstein didn’t care much for the exact reflection of reality in a mirror, but rather with the reflection that seemed to lift of the materiality of the reflected objects.
His still life works such as the Still Life with Glass and Peeled Lemon from 1972 starts another segment of this exhibition. Here, Lichtenstein is influenced by other artists like Dutch masters of the 17th century with the precision of the American trompe-l’oel masters such as William M. Harnett. In the late seventies, Lichtenstein takes on a high interest for surrealism, where he borrows from other artists, specifically from Magritte, to juxtapose their original artwork with his style of surrealism. In the early nineties he takes on the same approach of borrowing from another artist, in this case Picasso, to play with iconography and cubism. A wise man to borrow popular techniques, Lichtenstein did have a very unique style indeed. Even as he borrowed or rather was influenced by other artists, this was only to either criticize the same mentality of mass reproduction or to simply make the painting his by incorporating his signature style.
Although Lichtenstein was a foremost member of the Pop Art movement that challenged traditional definitions of art in the 1960s, he wasn’t quite as famous as others like Andy Warhol for example. Lichtenstein was more low-key, he neither sought nor avoided the spotlight; he just wasn’t crazy about the virtues of publicity.
If you’re in the area or have the opportunity to visit San Francisco, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will be exhibiting Roy Lichtenstein: All About Art through February 22, 2005. SFMOMA 151 Third Street (between Mission and Howard Streets) San Francisco, CA 94103-3159 Tel:415.357.4000 www.sfmoma.org .
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