Lichtenstein’s Unexpected Views

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Roy Lichtenstein "Sailboat" 1981.
Roy Lichtenstein “Sailboat,” 1981.

By Annette Hinkle

When you think about the art of Roy Lichtenstein, the first thing that inevitably comes to mind are his brilliant comic strip inspired paintings dominated by primary shades of red, blue, and yellow, set off by bright diagonal stripes and the liberal use of Benday dots.

But Guild Hall is currently featuring an exhibit that offers a distinctly different (and expansive) take on Mr. Lichtenstein’s work — his landscapes.

“Roy Lichtenstein: Between Sea and Sky” is a collaboration between Guild Hall and the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, and on view are 31 works of art (including one film) that trace the artist’s exploration of landscape from the 1960s to the 1990s. From banners and sculptural pieces to landscape abstractions and even a take on Monet’s water lilies, what quickly becomes apparent when examining the range of work in this show is the fact that, although Mr. Lichtenstein isn’t considered a landscape artist, per se, how often and successfully he revisited the form throughout his career.

Back in 1991, Christina Mossaides Strassfield, museum director and chief curator of Guild Hall, organized a Lichtenstein sculptural exhibit at Guild Hall. At the time, she was able to meet Mr. Lichtenstein at his studio and recalls being impressed by the variety and sheer scope of his work.

“You see his comic strip style and you see how he transformed it into brushstrokes and brushstroke sculptures — taking a technique and pushing it as far as he can go,” notes Ms. Strassfield. “I liked that Roy didn’t consider a collage or print as being less than a painting.”

Roy Lichtenstein's "Night Seascape" 1966.
Roy Lichtenstein’s “Night Seascape,” 1966.

“We felt in general, we wanted this show to have a bit of everything.”

Picture postcards and bulkhead tapestries on airplanes inspired Lichtenstein’s initial foray into landscape. The earliest piece in the show, “Seascape” from 1964, was painted in reverse on Plexiglas and is box-like in construction, which adds a 3D element to the imagery.

It was not unusual for Lichtenstein to try a number of different working methods and materials. Throughout the 1960s, Lichtenstein enthusiastically embraced the use of new industrial products in his landscapes. One of the most predominate substances evident in the Guild Hall show is Rowlux, an illusion film that comes in a range of patterns (including ripples, waves and moiré) and is most widely recognized in its application on bowling balls and sports trophies.

Lichtenstein created his Rowlux landscapes by pairing contrasting patterns and colors of the material to reference sea and sky while painted lines indicated the simple horizon, distant land or islands. Perhaps most notable about Lichtenstein’s use of Rowlux is that it moved him away from primary colors and toward pastel shades.

“He caught the idea of doing the landscapes, found the Rowlux and created 200 pieces of work in that style,” explains Ms. Strassfield. “He explored it as long as he could, then went on to something else.”

But before moving onto something else, he explored the technique to its fullest. Among the Rowlux pieces on view at Guild Hall are two rare works from 1966 that feature rotating fluorescent lamps with various colored gels. As they turn, the different colors of the lamp bounce off the Rowlux surface simulating sunrise and sunset.

Another piece, “Ocean Motion,” has a motor attached which causes the image to tilt from side to side, mimicking the sensation of being in a boat at sea. Despite its mechanical nature, the painting still possesses the characteristic Benday dots and black lines associated with Mr. Lichtenstein.

Though it’s logical to assume that in creating his landscapes, Mr. Lichtenstein, who lived in Southampton for many years, was inspired by the sea nearby, Ms. Strassfield notes that this was not necessarily the case.

“These landscapes were based on more ephemeral imagery of sea meeting land meeting sky and making it permanent,” says Ms. Strassfield. “He also approached his landscapes as abstraction. I think when you look at them at first glance, you think they’re abstract.”

In order to offer more insight into the artist’s working method, this Saturday, Guild Hall will host a panel discussion with Donald J. Saff, one of Lichtenstein’s frequent collaborators and fabricators, and James dePasquale, a Bridgehampton artist who served as Lichtenstein’s longtime assistant from 1972 until the artist’s death in 1997.

Interestingly enough, one of the centerpiece works of this exhibit is a mural-sized sunset scene which was created recently by Mr. dePasquale in Mr. Lichtenstein’s studio. Based on a black and white Lichtenstein study from the 1960s, the piece, Super Sunset Billboard, was originally commissioned in the mid-60s by Joan Kron and Audrey Sabol, two champions of Pop art in Philadelphia.

The idea was to install a series of billboards around the city featuring imagery by contemporary artists of the day. The Lichtenstein study, which was recreated larger than life by Strait Outdoor Advertising of Philadelphia, was installed in 1967 on a sports backboard at Sabol’s Pennsylvania property in order to drum up support for the project. However, it never came to fruition and eventually the billboard was discarded.

Roy Lichtenstein "Landscape 5."
Roy Lichtenstein “Landscape 5.”

For this show, dePasquale used Mr. Lichtenstein’s own projection method to enlarge the original image, which he then painted on a series of three panels. The 11’ x 20’ work dominates a full wall at Guild Hall and serves as a larger than life introduction to an exhibit that offers a totally new and unexpected vision of the Lichtenstein we have all come to know.

“This has been one of our most popular shows in terms of attendance,” notes Ms. Strassfield. “What I love is that people come and are surprised. They’re intrigued and say, ‘I didn’t know Lichtenstein did that.’”

“That’s the response we wanted,” she adds, “and it’s worked out.”

The Roy Lichtenstein panel discussion with James dePasquale and Donald J. Saff begins at 3 p.m. on Saturday, September 19. Art historian Avis Berman will moderate the discussion. The exhibit “Roy Lichtenstein: Between Sea and Sky” runs through October 12 at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street, East Hampton. Call 324-0806 or visit guildhall.org for details.

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