POP OFF THE CANVAS: Lichtenstein’s art is known for its dramatic primary colors.[/caption]Entering an exhibit for Roy Lichtenstein’s art is a bit like stepping into both a comic book and Saturday morning cartoon. Known as the man who defined and redefined pop art, Lichtenstein created pieces that are whimsically simple; a multitude of dots, straight lines and basic colors compose the majority of his work, although everything from Mickey Mouse to nude paintings are on display. Often known as a lighter counterpart to Andy Warhol, The National Gallery’s new exhibit, “Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective” offers a vivid, playful depiction of 1950s America.

Set up in distinct sections representing Lichtenstein’s different creative periods, the exhibit is as accessible as the art, which utilizes power, scale and giddy dignity to represent mid-19th century consumerism and domesticity. “Look Mickey,” his first painting, greets every museumgoer with the familiar sight of Disney characters. Although it helped the struggling artist begin to be taken seriously, it boasts figures we are familiar with even today. Lichtenstein pulled inspiration from life as we know it; in his black-and-white works, entire canvases are taken over by tires, composition books, balls of twine, radios, desk calendars and waters fizzing with Alka-Seltzer tablets. Here, the subjects are isolated, and the artist is hidden; observers are forced to realize that although these material objects may seem vitally important to us, they appear almost inconsequential when we expect to see art but only see everyday items.

Perhaps best known for his romance and war paintings, Lichtenstein drew upon comic books in order to create art that literally tells a story. Each romance piece features a woman talking with or thinking about a man and are intended to represent the limited role of woman in 1950s society. He utilizes basic colors and facial expressions to portray the underlying emotion: for example, “Ohhh…Alright…” features a woman with a phone frowning, her forehead crinkled with a combination of disappointment and annoyance, emotions that are further emphasized by her fire-truck red hair, the only non-neutral color in the piece. In “Drowning Girl,” another young woman is seen embroiled in tumultuous waves, her romantic woes underscored by her blue hair and gushing tears.

The war paintings are similar but instead feature military figures inspired by the then-popular DC comic, “All-American Men of War.” Some are designed as comic book strips, such as “As I Opened Fire,” which is broken into three sections with bright yellow text boxes, while others are explosion-dominated canvases. However, each represents what Lichtenstein refers to as the “pregnant moment” — the crux from which one might imagine the rest of the story. The paintings are almost grotesquely cartoonish in their depiction of war and gender roles in society, but that’s a large part of their impact. Scrutinizing Roy Lichtenstein’s art is similar to flipping through the Sunday comics and the simplicity only helps to emphasize the materialistic, violent, and often sexually imbalanced nature of mid-century culture.
But Lichtenstein developed beyond the cartoon-style; in his later years, he created Picasso-like still lives and chaotic representations of women in “Femme d’Alger.” He experimented with circular canvases intended to reflect mirrors, and he delved into complete abstractions. He dedicated a period of his career to nudes, and before his rather abrupt death, Lichtenstein concluded with his “landscapes in the Chinese style” that feature less color and more artistic delicacy where his dots transition into a part of the physical background.

Roy Lichtenstein’s pieces are distinctive, and you never forget your first time. His style is unforgettable and identifiable in its overstated bright colors and understated representation of 1950s American society. The exhibit is a dynamic collection of Lichtenstein’s vastly diverse, culturally relevant artwork that offers engaging paintings and sculptures sure to appeal to any visitor, even if he can’t differentiate between a Picasso and a Monet.

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