Connecting the dots on Roy Lichtenstein retrospective at Art Institute

By Christopher Borrelli Chicago Tribune reporter

If you're going to the new Roy Lichtenstein retrospective opening May 22 at the Art Institute of Chicago, do this: Stop at the giant display graphic that serves as the show's entrance and turn to the right. Hanging just inside the doorway to the first gallery is Lichtenstein's iconic "Look Mickey" from 1961, a large replica of a Golden Book panel that shows Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck fishing. It's the first of several Lichtenstein works that established him in the 1960s (alongside Andy Warhol) as one of the most important artists of the '60s pop art movement. The only name on the work, however, is Lichtenstein's; the creator of the original goes unnamed.

In a 1966 interview with the BBC, Lichtenstein said he initially used the panels for reference, copying Mickey and Donald into abstracted works (two of which are included in the show). But he was more taken with the originals than his interpretations, and the thought "of doing one without apparent alteration just occurred."

This, of course — colorful, subtly altered mimicking of comic book art — became Lichtenstein's signature.

Now turn to the left.

Just beyond that doorway is the show's last gallery. Hanging on the wall facing you is one of the replicas of Chinese landscape art that Lichtenstein painted in the 1990s, works that used many of the elements — a clean look, bright colors, tiny Ben-Day graphic dots — he famously employed in his '60s comic art images.

"I love standing in this spot, seeing old and new," said James Rondeau, the Art Institute's curator of contemporary art and organizer of the retrospective. "Because this show is about transformation — how you can take something that exists in the world and, in order to make it art, rethink and distill, then send it back in such a way we all learn something about it. That Mickey piece shows us something about our culture, the way we think about images. Then turn, and you see where Roy was heading. And it's Lichtenstein saying this Song Dynasty landscape is the same as that comic art, that both are graphic languages, that both use pictorial conventions. He's saying art history, fine art and commercial art are collapsing together, always."

He's also preaching to the choir.

At least he is in 2012.

Decades ago, Lichtenstein, without necessarily intending to be, was radical. Years before any hip-hop artist ever sampled James Brown, his work was a quasi lecture on art appropriation. And he reignited the once-caustic debate about the legitimacy of fine art versus popular art — a debate that, decades later, feels as irrelevant and uninformed as the question of whether a comic book can be sophisticated and smart.

Indeed, the Lichtenstein show — which includes more than 160 works and spends considerable time on less familiar, more abstract periods of Lichtenstein's five-decade career — is far from radical, not even particularly surprising. If anything, it's a confirmation of Lichtenstein's points, a kind of conversation about how stiff the cultural conversation once was. "Roy insisted on the authority of the artificial. We live in that world now," Rondeau said. "We don't theorize it. We take it for granted. His ideas are our cultural oxygen."

And yet, if so, why not mention the original comic book artists? Even hip-hop (mostly) acknowledges its inspirations and appropriations and blatant thefts. But in exhibitions of Lichtenstein's art, almost never.

Hilary Barta is 54, lives in Lincoln Square and has the sunken, exhausted eyes of a guy who works far into the night. For the past 30 years, he has been a comic book artist. He is not a superstar — or an unknown. He started out working for Marvel on X-Men and The Thing comics; he has since worked as an artist-for-hire (a fairly common industry arrangement) for every major comic book publisher and, being widely known in publishing circles as a talented satirist, he's currently drawing "Simpsons" and"SpongeBob SquarePants" comics.

He's also the kind of workaday comic book artist Lichtenstein would have borrowed from, if Lichtenstein started today.

We asked Barta to come to a preview of the Lichtenstein show. We got the idea after attending an Art Institute-sponsored panel in April featuring acclaimed comic book artists. Though the panel was intended to celebrate Lichtenstein, Neal Adams, a celebrated superhero artist, let loose: "(Lichtenstein) stole from everybody," he said. "Every comic book artist curses his name!" Afterward we called Gary Gianni, a Chicago cartoonist (and former Tribune illustrator) known for drawing the syndicated "Prince Valiant" newspaper strip. "I never thought of Lichtenstein as stealing millions from pockets of struggling illustrators," he said. "But some do see it that way. I think now that the line between his work and the work he took has blurred so much that frankly I would rather see a show now about the artists he took from than a Lichtenstein show."

We invited Geof Darrow, another Chicago comic book artist, known for "Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot" (as well his designs in the "Matrix" trilogy), to come with us to the preview. He said he would probably be too incensed to be very fair: "Why not run a concurrent show of Lichtenstein's art sources for once?" he asked.

Barta was more agnostic, more uncertain of his feelings. We stood before the 1961 Mickey painting.

"My first thought is that this is not a very good comic book panel," he chuckled. "This was originally most likely done with paint and a certain amount of style and well-crafted. But Lichtenstein removed all that style."

As we walked into the gallery devoted to Lichtenstein's iconic comic art appropriations, he was struck by the scale. He said he was struck by how cold they were compared with the originals — how stripped of soul the images seemed.

He walked from piece to piece, from barking submarine commanders to swooning heroines to blazing machine guns, identifying the original artists — John Romita, Jack Kirby. "You know what's incredible," he said, "is how subtle Lichtenstein is, how muted. They don't come off like a pretentious take on comic books at all. They're very simple. He clearly made them a very different thing, no question."

Then he stopped and read the wall copy

"'Cliches'? They call these panels cliches?" he asked, more to himself. "Do they really mean that?" He sounded hurt. He read on. He pointed to a mention of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock. He noted that the individual comic book titles are acknowledged but artists' names are missing. He was not shocked: "But I think that's condescending. Not from the Art Institute. It's a general condescension from the art world. They find the thoughtfulness to cite fine artists but not other artists? Truth is, it probably doesn't occur to them."

Jack Cowart, executive director of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, has heard the complaints. He said that Lichtenstein was never sued for copyright infringement and, when the pieces were initially celebrated in the 1960s, comic book publishers never raised the issue.

Asked why the artists are never cited, he said that acknowledging the source material would have made Lichtenstein's work too much about the original and that viewers wouldn't be able to take the new work at face value. Rondeau doesn't disagree.


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He said he never wanted to ground the show in any outside context, "which could become insistent. I think the (original) work has equal value. I do. But it's just not my field. It belongs to a study of material culture and illustration."

Rondeau said Lichtenstein was never disingenuous. Pointing to the large Ben-Day dots inside a painting of a magnifying glass lens, he said: "See, Roy's showing you what he did, literally showing you his methods."

Indeed, artist Laurie Lambrecht, a former Lichtenstein assistant, remembers the man as deliberate, modest — "He once told me far more talented people worked just as hard, but their careers never took off like his."

Even David Barsalou, a retired art teacher in Massachusetts who has been documenting Lichtenstein's original sources since 1979, said the shaming of Lichtenstein was never his intention, "just equal recognition for artists often as educated and visually sophisticated as fine artists." Lichtenstein's "Look Mickey," for instance, was the work of two Disney artists, Bob Grant and Bob Totten.

Rick Yager, another illustrator appropriated by Lichtenstein (though none of those works are in the new show), attended the School of the Art Institute. Barsalou has documented about 150 such pieces, posting the results on his website, Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein.

Joe Kubert, now 85, is one of the artists Lichtenstein often used. Kubert has never really minded, he said.

"Appropriating or not, I think every artist steals," he said. "I have my motivations, and Lichtenstein had his." Ironically, on the Lichtenstein Foundation website, a picture of a growling comic book dog illustrates its warning to any potential copyright violators. It's a near perfect copy of a growling dog that Kubert once drew.

About midway though our walk-through, having passed by Lichtenstein's comic book years, his commercial illustration period, his Ben-Day dot mirrors, his sketch-pad pages, sculptures and a gallery devoted to several playful parodies of Picasso, Mondrian and Monet (none of whom are credited in gallery labels either, incidentally), Barta stopped short before a series of paintings of Lichtenstein's own studio. He could not pull his eyes from one piece in particular. It was white and yellow and from 1973. It shows a sofa, telephone, still-life fruits at the foot of furniture and, hanging on the wall in the picture, Lichtenstein's 1961 Mickey painting.

Very meta.

"Very pre-meta," Barta corrected.

The work is bright and charming, and only half of the painting-within-the-painting shows. Also, the painting-within-the-painting (hanging above the painted sofa) is smoother than the earlier, cruder take of the same image that opens the show. "Don't you think this is more about collecting art than about the work itself?" Barta asked. "It's definitely Lichtenstein having fun. A comment on his profession? Don't you think?"

Yes. And maybe.

If there's an especially glaring omission in this sprawling retrospective, it's one that can't be helped: A Roy Lichtenstein show in 2012 offers such an opportunity to discuss how much of our culture was anticipated by his art and methods, it's hard not to wish we could hear from the artist himself, who died in 1997 at 73. Then again, Lichtenstein once said his art was "anti-contemplative … anti all of those brilliant ideas of preceding movements which everyone understands so thoroughly." He never did say much — not nearly enough.

Said Cowart: "His work is so seemingly clear we tend to forget what he was actually up to. And unfortunately, Roy was not good at explaining that. What you see is what you get. Except when you don't."

Asked about his use of comic book imagery, Lichtenstein would say he found aspects of commercial art forceful, overwhelming. A musician could cover a tune and create a distinct, aesthetically legitimate work, he said, but an artwork that incorporates a cartoon is seen as a cartoon itself. Whether that translated into respect for cartoonists whose work he appropriated and never acknowledged by name is unclear.

Though Lichtenstein's paintings have been offered by cultural critics as a sign of newfound appreciation for comic books, cartoonist Art Spiegelman once quipped: "Lichtenstein did no more or less for comics than Andy Warhol did for soup."

Walking quickly through the show's later galleries, Barta swung back and forth between appreciating Lichtenstein's loving mimicry and wondering why, decades later, source material remains unacknowledged.

He came across as seriously conflicted.

"Maybe 20 years ago, I'd have felt militant," he said. "But I can't deny comics have a place in the culture now. I can't say Lichtenstein is getting the attention. Look at (cartoonist) Daniel Clowes' museum show that just opened in California. But then I'm certainly not speaking for the cartoonists whose work is in this show.

"As an art fan, looking at this, it's hard to believe anyone once thought Lichtenstein's ideas were shocking. But as a comic book fan, when I look at a Lichtenstein version of, say, a John Romita panel, the meaningfulness on Lichtenstein's end has mostly fallen away, and what's remained beautiful is the John Romita itself. Lichtenstein was about changing context, of course. He meant something different than what the original meant. And yet, with or without him, the context has changed again. Now I see Lichtenstein's version of a Joe Kubert explosion and think, 'Someone likes Kubert. But they flattened him in the process.'"

We pointed to a sign on the gallery wall. It read, "No photographs, video or film permitted."

"That's irony," Barta said. "That's hilarious, actually. Except it isn't."