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Friday, January 14, 2005
In the mid-sixties I met the woman in the apartment next to mine when I went over to complain about her boys, ages 10 & 12, who were bouncing a basketball off the wall of their bedroom, on the other side of which was my hallway. She invited me in. Hanging in the boys' room was this painting:


"Look Mickey" now hangs in The National Gallery of Art. It's the first painting in which former college art professor Roy Lichtenstein used comic book characters. He'd painted it for his sons' amusement. He had just received a divorce from my neighbor, Isabel.

Is and I became fast friends, and she introduced me to Pop Art. At the time, only the avant garde took Roy, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, and their pals seriously. I had no appreciation for art of any sort at the time. For example, I didn't notice anything phallic about this image.


Is and I roamed around Princeton in her Renault Caravelle. We painted together a few times, drove around the countryside, and sang duets to her guitar. Roy was starting to hit the big time: he came to visit in a classic Morgan sports car. The only problem was that he couldn't figure out how to put the top up. Three months later I moved to Europe, never to see either of them again. Roy was in his cartoon phase:


An article in Life magazine asked, "Is this the worst artist in America?" At first glance, people didn't realize that the images in the paintings were becoming less and less like cartoons. To achieve the machine-printed look, Roy made his dots disproportionately large and exagerrated the outlines around people and objects. He had to do things by hand to achieve an automated look. He also started weaving ironic meaning into every canvas. Take this, Life magazine:


Through his images, Roy commented on the work of other artists. Years later I was delighted to be seated underneath prints of these takeoffs on Monet's Rouen Cathedral series at The Brasserie, across the street from The Seagram Building in New York. Monet painted the same scene at different times of day; throwing aside subtlety, Lichtenstein simply changed his single color. (I call him by last name from now on because, people had recognized his stature as an artist. I wouldn't call Matisse "Henri" either.)

Your don't have to be an art critic to recognize these:

1035969546_large-image_lichtenstein_forest_scene_1980_lg 1049355404_large-image_rlichtviolinlg23

Where do you go after knocking off several periods of Picasso? What statement can the artist make? Since it's all about art, how about a painting of paint itself? Lichtenstein wasn't happy with this one because he felt the paint could be confused for bacon.

In time, he created his own iconic vocabulary. A quarter century after Mickey, Lichtenstein's style was far from its comic roots. Consider this painting of a living room in which he wryly comments on his own work:


I love the risible contradictions that became Lichtenstein's signature. Is it real or is it Memorex? What makes classic beauty classic? Does this painting have the Buddha nature? Is this art or is it a question about art? (People who pay millions for a Lichtenstein must think they know the answer.)


Yesterday I attended an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art entitled Roy Lichtenstein: About Art. Most of the paintings above are on display. The show closes February 22. If you go, you must read the explanatory posters on the wall so you can chuckle at Lichtenstein's wit.

Isabel died in an institution twenty years ago. The boys must be in their early fifties. Roy passed away in 1997 from complications of pneumonia. He is survived by his second wife Dorothy.

The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation
Arts.Telegraph on Roy's ascent from bored professor to Pop Art icon in three years
Roy Lichtenstein Gallery


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