Years ago there was a series of jokes detailing how various professions did "it." Engineers did "it" with slide rules. Firemen did "it" with hoses. Programmers did "it" with mice. Lawyers did "it" with briefs while naturally; fighters did "it" with...boxers, of course. And, not surprisingly, painters did "it" with strokes. One famous painter, in fact, did it with a lot with strokes - huge, long, colourful, expressive strokes. And though we all use strokes, this one in particular made "strokes" the theme for much of his painting and even his sculpture. The Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery on Madison Avenue in New York recently ran a retrospective of his work showing in great detail how he did it with strokes. "Roy Lichtenstein: Brushstrokes, Four Decades" was the first showing of the artist's work since his death in 1997. No, he didn't die of a stroke, but he certainly made the most of them when he was alive.
If you think of Roy Lichtenstein only in terms of outsized comic strips with sometimes profound (or ambiguous) speech balloons, a limited palette of primary colours, and Benday dots, you're thinking far too narrowly of this artist's work. There was the Pop Art, of course; but Pop came and went in the 1960s. That was thirty or forty years ago and Lichtenstein's work neither began nor ended with paintings inspired by the funny papers. His earliest work in the show dates from about 1940. Some 4,500 paintings later, his Landscape in Fog, one of a series of Chinese landscapes from 1996, combines his trademark Benday dots with a breezy, grey brushstroke spanning the centre of the canvas. The dots are there, but they're like those of the French pointillists, in a minimalist style light years from the garish Pop images that made him famous.
Actually, Lichtenstein's fascination with the act of painting - the simple, expressive, vigorous brushstroke itself - dates from the Abstract Expressionist era well before Pop and continued right up until his death long after Pop. His Variation 7 from 1959 symbolically marks his "discovery" of the power of the primary colours using strokes of Abstract Expressionism while his Drip series from the 1960s evokes a commentary on the work of Pollock and the fading Abstract Expressionism of the time. From the same era we see one of his earliest uses of the magnified brushstroke to create the blond tresses of his Drowning Girl (on loan from the Museum of Modern Art) while his 1986 Drowning Muse picks up the same theme and reworks it using, not red, yellow and blue, but shades of light blue and pale pink in the landscape with brushstrokes of maroon and mauve framing the girl's face.
The evolution of Lichtenstein from illustrated brushstrokes on canvas to hard, painted baked enamel on aluminium would not seem to be a logical one. But the effect is dramatic. In a courtyard of Port Columbus International Air Terminal is one of his early, tentative leaps from 2-D to 3-D. Dating from 1984, it's called Brushstrokes in Flight (appropriate to its venue). It's always been a favourite landmark of mine whenever I fly into or out of Columbus, Ohio. It's not as large as the later 32-foot masterpiece simply entitled Brushstroke (1996) displayed in the Seagram Plaza in New York (in conjunction with the Mitchell-Innes & Nash exhibit) but it's no less striking. It's as if the glass enclosed, raised concourse courtyard of the air terminal is, in fact, a landscape canvas which Lichtenstein has expressively altered with a few flashing, powerful, yet whimsical strokes of "flying" paint - no tacky speech balloon needed here. Whatever the media or the era, Lichtenstein did "it" with strokes of genius.
contributed by Lane, Jim
8 November 1