Munich Gets a Crash Course in Pop Art

Munich — Not since Hitler laid the cornerstone of the House of German Art in 1933 has Munich been known as much of a trailblazer on the international art scene. In 1993, however, Christoph Vitali took over the establishment, now called simply Haus der Kunst, and brought with him new vitality. Mr. Vitali had already put one exhibition space on the map, Frankfurt's Schirn Kunsthalle. Thanks to his expertise and connections, Munich now hosts a caliber of traveling show that used to bypass southern Germany in favor of Cologne, Hamburg or Berlin.

The best expression of the new wind blowing through the city is the current blast of pop art. For the Haus der Kunst, Mr. Vitali managed to get a piece of the Roy Lichtenstein action, a Munich stop (through Jan. 8) on the grand tour of the retrospective that opened at the Guggenheim in 1993. He's even added a number of works that weren't shown in New York. Following suit is another museum with another recently arrived director: The Villa Stuck, headed since 1992 by Jo-Anne Birnie-Dansker, currently hosts the Tom Wesselmann retrospective (through Jan. 15) traveling around Europe until the end of 1996.

For Munich to have two major shows of this nature at once is unprecedented. That they happen to coincide enables audiences here to take what amounts to an in-depth crash course in this

Though Mr. Lichtenstein is seven years older than Mr. Wesselmann, each artist arrived at his characteristic idiom around 1961. In Munich, the works that weren’t shown in New York include Lichtensteins from the 1950s in which the artist searches, with increasingly wandering brush strokes, for a certainty he finds only when he hits upon existing cultural icons. There’s a new strength and energy to, for instance, a 1958 ink sketch of Donald Duck. We see that Mr. Lichtenstein has found his voice: not an image, but a full vocabulary of representation.

This language is, above all, two-dimensional. But an idiom that the public imagination tends to reduce to an image of comic-book rapture is really an attempt to show how conventions of representation affect all our perceptions. Using his print screens and dots to filter both the world and the art-historical past, Mr. Lichtenstein looks at the way the modern eye flattens Picasso, Mondrian, Cezanne into mere reproductions — symbols that are the coin of a devalued cultural currency. This is one of the central themes of pop art: Warhol, too, pointed to the way that the “Mona Lisa” or “The Last Supper” has ceased to be a painting and has instead become an icon for a large segment of the public.

To put him in a conventional art-historical slot, Mr. Lichtenstein is a narrative painter, but his comic-book scenes are fragments of stories to which there is no beginning and no end. This hardly matters: The moments he selects are representative, not even so much of the shallow characters as of the society that has produced them. These works also invoke a convention of narration that reduces a story to its superficial, surface elements.

But eventually surface concerns take over altogether. When Mr. Lichtenstein began painting empty mirrors in the early ’70s, he brushed content and subject right out of the picture. The paintings of the next two decades show him struggling to find a way back in. He returns to allusions, citing everyone from the surrealists to — in a period of particular yearning for solidity — de Kooning; he falls back on the time-honored device of the artist's studio, which lets him quote from himself. The limitations of surface are best expressed in the series of “Imperfect Paintings” from the late ’80s — the rectangular picture plane is no longer able to sustain the compositions, which have to be supported on irregular

Mr. Wesselmann is a much happier artist than is Mr. Lichtenstein, and more fluent in his medium. Evident throughout his oeuvre is his delight in the physicality of paint, metal, plastic. Like Mr. Lichtenstein, Mr. Wesselmann focuses on surface, but his surfaces are above all tactile, sensuous. The nexus of themes central to this work is sexuality, at once voluptuous and sanitized, the “safer sex” of advertising images. Mr. Wesselmann's platform is the billboard; instead of narratives, he paints still lifes and landscapes, nudes and altarpieces to the American Dream.

Surface also functions as a screen for the viewer’s own projections of that dream. The earliest “Great American Nudes” are flat, featureless, even amorphous pink shapes lounging on draperies of Matissean brilliance -- their surfaces gradually develop into the desirable but equally anonymous gleaming curve of a car body, a breast. From the mid-’80s on, the white space surrounding the nudes becomes the ground on which Mr. Wesselmann inscribes sketches of brightly enameled metal: pretty, colorful, facile images of nudes, still lifes. The images are tasteful and marketable; indeed, they've been on sale at two Munich galleries since 1992.

As his works scale down, Mr. Wesselmann steps up his quotations: “Monica Sitting With Mondrian“ or “Nude With Cezanne,” even “Bedroom Face With Lichtenstein.” Like Mr. Lichtenstein years before, Mr. Wesselmann is making a statement about the way famous images are reduced to reproductions, or, here, to background.

But in the end, Messrs. Wesselmann’s and Lichtenstein’s works are just as vulnerable as are any of the Old Masters to the process of being reduced to reproduction — more so, in fact, because pop images are already executed in the vocabulary of reproduction. And time has dulled the force of their message. These pretty pictures no longer stir up their audience, no longer pose a threat to lazy viewing habits. The works of Messrs. Wesselmann and Lichtenstein have become commodities, repossessed by the idiom of reproduction and mass-production — T-shirts, wall calendars and mugs — about which these two artists were originally making a statement.