RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The canvasses of painter Roy Lichtenstein look as if they're lifted from the pages of comic books - black line drawings with simple colors filled in. Comics were a big inspiration for this pop artist, who, by the time he died in 1997 at the age of 73, was rich and famous.
NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg visited a major Lichtenstein retrospective at Washington's National Gallery of Art, and found it wasn't just comics that interested the artist.
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SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: You're not supposed to use cell phones in museums. But at the Lichtenstein show, I just had to make a call.
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STAMBERG: This is Susan Stamberg from National Public Radio. I'm at an exhibition of works by Roy Lichtenstein and one of them is called "Desk Calendar," something he made in 1962 and your phone number is on it. Could you call me back?
Never got a call back but it was a real number. Just as the date on the open black and white pages of the desk calendar in the painting Monday, May 21, was the real 1962 date. Just as real comics inspired his '60s works - angsty frames often of ladies in distress.
National Gallery curator Harry Cooper inspects one with me.
A beautiful, very fraught looking woman. They're all fraught. She's got a furrow between her eyebrows and she's holding them, with both hands,...
HARRY COOPER: Yes.
STAMBERG: ...to the telephone.
STAMBERG: And she's saying, Ohhh, alright. And you know she's talking to a fellow.
COOPER: What I like about that painting is the way she's holding the phone. And she's caressing that phone, and I think in a way she would rather have a relationship with that receiver, than with whoever is on the other end of the line.
STAMBERG: Mm-hmm, yeah. I wonder what he's saying to her. And what she's agreeing to: Oh, alright.
COOPER: I don't know. You know, and one thing about Roy is that he really looked hard for these frames that had a kind of crux of the story in them.
STAMBERG: And he lets us imagine the back story and what might happen next. Interesting, because he uses such a cold mechanical process, dot-dot-dot. He was really painting digital pixels before there were pixels, to evoke such strong emotions. Dot-dot-dot, so did he paint each one by hand?
COOPER: No, he didn't. In fact, you could argue that he didn't paint any of them...
COOPER: ...by hand.
STAMBERG: Lichtenstein used various kinds of stencils with perforated dot patterns. He'd brush his paint across the top of the stencil, and the colors dropped through, as perfect circles. And, elevated commercial images from comics ads into high art.
In the 1960s, young American artists were looking for ways to make their marks. Andy Warhol did it with soup cans. Roy Lichtenstein did it with dots. Inventing pop art comic book frames were his starting point. But he wasn't making exact reproductions.
COOPER: He's always making these alterations. He did it because he felt these things could be improved. And they weren't quite art, but he could make them art.
STAMBERG: By changing a hue, widening a line, expanding the dots.
COOPER: Tiny things that would help make a really iconic image, an image that, I think, would stand up, you know, would last on the wall, last in our memories.
STAMBERG: You can always tell a Lichtenstein, the vocabulary of dots. And he makes you laugh. Another fraught woman, this one drowning, thinks: I don't care. I'd rather sink than call Brad for help. The fraughts are from a series on romance. In another series, "Brushstrokes," he addresses that basic element of art. In 1993, he told WHYY's FRESH AIR that he was painting the idea of a brushstroke - you do not, for a minute, think its real.
ROY LICHTENSTEIN: You think it's a picture of a brush stroke. And, you know, that's a kind of absurd thing to do. It has that built-in absurdity and that's the reason I like it.
STAMBERG: Dorothy Lichtenstein, the painter's widow, says her husband dotted beyond the post World War II abstract expressionists, Pollack with his drips, DeKooning with his brush sweeps. But he kept the past in his rearview mirror.
DOROTHY LICHTENSTEIN: Certainly his brushstroke paintings were an ode, in some way, to abstract expressionism. But I mean you could look at the history of art as the history of the brushstroke as well.
STAMBERG: Lichtenstein had some trouble making brushstrokes. But he used his dots to reproduce some of his greatest brushy predecessors. Monet, for instance. His wonderful "Rouen Cathedral" series of the late 1890s. In 1969, Lichtenstein's pale, dotty cathedrals become glowing shimmers.
Dorothy Lichtenstein says her husband went to museums in search of the masters.
LICHTENSTEIN: Well, it was actually great, going to a museum with Roy, because everything was kind of grist for his mind. He was always looking at paintings and art, in a way as to what he might - how he might be able to transform it.
COOPER: Picasso was his hero, above all. Matisse was right up there. But it was really Picasso he attacked first.
STAMBERG: Attacked, curator Harry Cooper says, not tackled. He was paying his respects to Picasso and Mondrian and Monet and others. But...
COOPER: Its not just homage. It's also bringing these artists down to the level of dots. And comic vocabulary.
STAMBERG: Is that not a cruel act, bringing them down?
COOPER: I think so. I think artists always very anxious about their predecessors, the anxiety of influence. So what he said about Picasso was that he realized that he could make it his own and that felt good.
STAMBERG: Dots all, folks - sorry. Curator Cooper says Lichtenstein has had a real impact.
COOPER: We can't go anywhere without seeing it, pop art. He's been taken up in design in larger culture. Nobody has imitated him, but he really opened up and showed that pop art was not just a gimmick, not just a joke.
STAMBERG: May be, but you'll still get some good laughs at the National Gallery's Roy Lichtenstein retrospective until mid-January.
In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
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