Roy's Keen

lichtenstein-printRoy Lichtenstein: The Black-and-White Drawings, 1961-1968 The Morgan Library & Museum Through January 2, 2011 One of the many visual images to become embedded in our collective minds from the World Trade Center attack on 9/11 is the showers of paper falling from the Twin Towers. Paper memos, faxes, and archived letters -- things that a decade later seem quaint, having been replaced by emails, texts, and tweets. Of course, though it is a wild stretch to compare this event to any art-historical watershed moment, one might, tentatively, compare it with the papery revolution of Cubist collage. There was a moment, in the early half of the Twentieth Century, when the use of text and images from popular media such as advertising and newspapers sought to replace the high art materials of stone and paint, overthrowing notions of what comprised an artwork and its relationship to culture and politics. Nearly half a century later, Roy Lichtenstein and other artists whose movement would be labeled "Pop" expanded on these notions of "high" and "low" materials and images. In this excellent exhibit at the Morgan Library, we see that unlike some of his contemporaries such as Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein conceived and executed a mini-oeuvre of works on paper whose intent and ambition for drawing seems to rival that of Braque and Picasso. While Lichtenstein's Pop Art contemporaries found icons in everyday life and elevated their subjects to the status of minor deities (Warhol's "Marilyn," for example), Lichtenstein, as this show suggests, used the transient nature of paper (it ages quickly, it rots, it is far more delicate than canvas or marble), as well as techniques simulating printing in magazines and newspapers (Ben-Day dots) and sought to achieve a measure of the avant-garde with which the Cubists imbued their collages. Where Picasso used the torn and clipped fragments of newsprint, rearranged and decontextualized to represent the provisional nature of contemporary culture, Lichtenstein painstakingly simulates these techniques through pochoir (stencils), frottage (rubbings), and various projection methods to trace images such as "I Know How You Must Feel, Brad!" (1963) and "Bratatat" (1962). Lichtenstein plays this conceit two ways: he undermines the notion of the high-art status of the drawing as preparatory sketch, or study, as he elevates the low-rent status accorded to collage by careful mimicry of mechanical technique. We see this two-fold approach in his choices of subject matter as well. For example, "Woman in Bath" (1963) takes the subject of the female bather, an Impressionist favorite, and interprets it through something resembling a Calgon ad. The faint echoes of the political (and here we are left to our own interpretations of what his political stance might have been) are heard in images of large pointing fingers a la "Uncle Sam Wants You" and jet fighter pilots with thought-bubbles saying "Target Destroyed!" With American involvement in Korea and Viet Nam an of-the-moment topic, these motifs can’t be easily written off as aesthetic caprice any more than Picasso’s references to Balkan engagements. In the end, though, the lasting importance of these drawings lies not merely in their revolutionary appeal. Lichtenstein treated these works on paper as a category separate from his painterly enterprise, and in this sense he is a little retro in his approach. One is reminded of artists as diverse as Boucher, Ingres, and Daumier, who made definitive bodies of graphic work; artists who combined tradition and innovation in subtle ways, which by their stand-alone nature sometimes rival the paintings on which their reputations stand. It is always a pleasure to see works in the Morgan Library, which, like the Frick or the Metropolitan Museum, adds a grandeur and history to the experience of looking at art. Although it might seem a little taxidermic to look at the work of a Pop lion in this setting, it does provide a sense of retrospective context to a movement in Twentieth-Century art, the Paper Age. - Bradley Rubenstein bradley-photoMr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.