COLUMBUS, Ohio — Big Hollywood franchises like “Star Wars’’ often follow up on major hits by filming prequels illuminating the earlier histories of major characters in the principal features. The art world does the same thing.
The Columbus Museum of Art last month opened “Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948-1960.” It’ the most authoritative effort yet to tell the little-known backstory of Lichtenstein’s critically important formative years in Ohio, which led to the explosive debut of his Pop Art paintings 60 years ago this spring at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York.
Organized by the Colby College Museum of Art and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, the show underscores that despite the brash, familiar, in-your-face qualities of Lichtenstein’s mature Pop style, his work has complex roots that still resist complete understanding. It’s one mark of Lichtenstein’s power as an artist. His work may seem simple, but it has depths that are still very much worth exploring.
The standard storyline is that Lichtenstein, born in 1923 in New York City, was profoundly influenced at Ohio State University by a professor named Hoyt Sherman. Sherman’s teaching methods included corralling students in a darkened room where he briefly flashed an image on a screen and then had them quickly draw what they saw on their pads in the dark.
After a stint in the U.S. Army during World II, Lichtenstein returned to OSU, where he completed his studies in 1949, and got a job teaching there. Turned down for tenure, he moved to Cleveland with his then-wife Isabel Wilson Sarisky, who started a thriving interior decorating business.
While working odd jobs that included decorating display windows at Halle’s Department Store, and helping with his wife’s business, Lichtenstein labored diligently on his art in Cleveland from 1951 to 1957.
During those years, (recounted in the enjoyable recent ideastream documentary, “Isabel & Roy,’’) Lichtenstein sought camaraderie and support from artists including Joseph O’Sickey, and his wife, gallerist and designer Algesa O’Sickey.
Nevertheless, frustrated overall by the inability of local audiences to “get” his work, and in need of a steady salary, Lichtenstein moved on to teaching jobs in upstate New York and at Rutgers in northern New Jersey, placing him within reach of Manhattan. There, he suddenly burst upon the scene with Pop paintings such as “Look Mickey,’’ and “Girl with Ball,’’ (both painted in 1961), becoming one of the world’s most famous contemporary artists.
The story isn’t flattering to Cleveland. It’s a coming-of-age tale in which the hero triumphs over yokels who were too dumb and blind to recognize the genius gestating in their midst.
The big question
The exhibition in Columbus expands upon and significantly complicates this narrative. Fundamentally, it performs a service by sharpening the big question behind Lichtenstein’s work that art historians still haven’t answered, 25 years after his death in 1997 at age 73.
Namely, how is it that a little-known graduate of OSU, working in obscurity in Columbus and Cleveland for more than a decade after World War II, suddenly showed up in New York in 1961-62 with a Pop style that instantly placed him in the vanguard, along with Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and other peers?
The exhibition is sprinkled liberally with tantalizing clues, but it doesn’t completely solve the big mystery. What’s obvious though, is that Lichtenstein’s Ohio years were critical to his later success, and are worthy of greater study and appreciation.
“Pop Art wasn’t born overnight,’’ said Marshall Price, a co-organizer of the show and the curator of contemporary art at the Nasher. “Most people don’t know that Lichtenstein had a whole career before he made what we think of as the Pop work. It was an evolution. It wasn’t something that happened overnight.”
By the 1950s in Cleveland, Lichtenstein was painting in a faux-naïve style that blended influences from outsider, or folk art, as well as highfalutin sources such as European modernist painting. His visual framework was fundamentally Cubist, drawing upon the work of revered figures such as Paul Klee and Pablo Picasso.
Lichtenstein organized his compositions around tightly interlocking geometric shapes that gave his work a generally flat, frontal effect. But he populated his paintings with themes drawn from Medieval art and American history, including scenes of Revolutionary war heroes, settlers, cowboys and Indians.
In this vein, Lichtenstein painted a whimsical, childlike self-portrait in 1951 portraying himself as a knight in armor defending a castle against attackers who have shot three arrows into his shield. Ironically, the knight painting, donated to the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2014 by Algesa O’Sickey’s estate, remains the most important painting by the artist in the museum’s collection. (The collection includes more than 20 works on paper.)
Early pop sources
Lichtenstein also parodied American classics such as Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware,’’ plus scenes from posters for Western movies, and images borrowed from painters of the American West, including Alfred Jacob Miller and George Catlin.
It’s not too much of a stretch to see how Lichtenstein’s interest in pop culture imagery could have led to the jet fighter pilots and femmes fatales that populate his Pop paintings.
But in terms of his style, Lichtenstein still had a very long way to go. With his obvious debts to Picasso and Cubism, he still hadn’t developed his own unique vision. He was, however, enamored of his materials, and it showed. His brushwork in the 1950s was often thick and luscious. He reveled in paint, and in communicating a vivid sense of touch directly to the surfaces of his paintings.
By 1958, however, when Lichtenstein moved from Cleveland to teach at the State University of New York in Oswego, he was rethinking things. He started making bold abstractions by smearing rainbow-hued gobs of pigment onto rags and then dragging them across his canvases.
The resulting striped abstractions, outstanding examples of which are on view in Columbus, had the effect of distancing Lichtenstein’s personal touch from the pictorial surface, which had until then been a key component of his work.
As such, the stripe paintings thumbed a nose at Abstract Expressionism, the then-dominant style, which was based on highly personal abstract imagery based on the artist’s individual touch, or process, whether dripping paint, as in a Jackson Pollock, or using paint rollers, as in a Mark Rothko.
“The most important thing at that moment in the 1950s was the subjectivity of one’s own touch or brushstroke,’’ Price said. “That was the hallmark of one’s essence of those artists. That’s why we immediately recognize a Pollock, a [Franz] Kline, a [Robert] Motherwell.’’
By taking a rag to the surface of his paintings, Lichtenstein was, in a way, spoofing the big-name artists cited by Price. That element of parody comes across clearly in the Columbus show. Lichtenstein was saying that his personal touch no longer mattered and that a trademark “look” based on an artist’s process, didn’t matter, either. He was dumbing things down but in a very knowing way.
What happened next, on the way to Pop, remains a mystery. Why did Lichtenstein, who reveled in thick paint, suddenly go completely flat in his Pop paintings? Why did he leap from abstraction to lifting pop culture imagery from cartoons and comic strips? And why, as an abstract painter, did Lichtenstein suddenly return to images of the human figure, then considered passé?
One clue in the show is that just before he made the rag-painted abstractions, Lichtenstein made a series of drawings that combined free-flowing Abstract-Expressionist gestures with images of Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, and Donald Duck.
Somehow, between 1958 and 1961, when he painted his first true Pop paintings, Lichtenstein adopted the mechanical, mass-produced look of commercial imagery, even to the extent of using Benday dots to provide light-to-dark shading, in the manner of everyday comic strips published in newspapers.
Price speculates that Lichtenstein may have been experimenting with comic-strip or cartoon imagery in his paintings just before the rag-painted abstractions and that those images may lie under the surface of the latter works. So far, however, the theory remains unproven. He said the Lichtenstein Foundation, which manages the artist’s estate, recently X-rayed two of the abstractions to see what’s below the surface, but none of the Pop images were underneath.
Nevertheless, the big, colorful abstractions in the Columbus show indicate very clearly that Lichtenstein made them as part of a process of refinement that would soon become even more radical.
Interestingly, in certain cases, Lichtenstein’s rag-painted stripes are very clearly daubed over passages of scribbled marks made by the artist with his brush. He was partially covering up one way of thinking about how to make a painting with another. Additional research and interpretation may clarify how, exactly, Lichtenstein made his big leap.
As a viewing experience now, the Columbus show is fascinating and deeply engaging. But it’s also challenging in the sense that it can best be appreciated if a viewer is already familiar with Lichtenstein’s Pop Art paintings, and the general development of American art in the 1950s and ‘60s.
As such, it’s a good example of why some viewers find modern and contemporary art alienating and elitist. It’s a form of expression in which generations of innovators, including Lichtenstein, were reacting to one another in sometimes lofty dialogues over the nature of art that require knowledge to decode and fully appreciate.
That’s especially the case with Lichtenstein’s early works, which, taken on their own, are preludes, not the final point of arrival, and not the artist is revered today.
The show also indicates why Cleveland audiences weren’t extremely impressed with Lichtenstein. Despite its growing reputation as a cultural hub, and as a city with one of America’s great orchestras, the city wasn’t deeply engaged with art from outside the region in the middle decades of the 20th century.
Lichtenstein had a handful of works accepted in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s 1952 May Show, and he showed works at local galleries, including the Ten-Thirty gallery on lower Euclid Avenue, directed by Algesa O’Sickey.
But local art critics were clueless in their reactions, which are quoted in the catalog of the Columbus show. Lichtenstein received more positive, and more knowledgeable responses, from New York critics after he began showing his work there in the 1950s. No wonder he left Cleveland.
The Cleveland Museum of Art was more on point in 1966 when it staged a major exhibition on Lichtenstein’s Pop paintings as part of a series of contemporary shows staged by Edward Henning, then the curator of modern and contemporary art.
Alas, the museum didn’t buy anything out of the Lichtenstein show. The museum, which is far more enthusiastic about new art today, tried but failed in recent years to buy a major Lichtenstein at auction. His prices now are such that the museum’s best hope of getting a major painting would be to seek a gift from a donor, said Emily Liebert, the museum’s curator of contemporary art.
“It would be wonderful to welcome a Lichtenstein Pop canvas into the collection,’’ she said.
Yes, it would. Having a major Pop painting along with “The Knight’’ would enable the Cleveland museum finally to tell in its own way the fascinating story illuminated by the excellent show now on view in Columbus.