ROY LICHTENSTEIN ACTUALLY looks a little like Marcel Duchamp. The American artist is thin, fine-featured, evenhanded and soft-spoken. So was the late French dadaist. And both were accused of doing irreparable harm to art. At the time of World War I, Duchamp tried to bury art with one quick landslide of "ready-mades," including a urinal presented as sculpture. Not only did art not die, it reblossomed into surrealism in the 1920s and abstract expressionism in the 1940s. Then along came Lichtenstein and a few pals to do something almost as bad as killing off art-they made art indistinguishable from vulgar commercial culture. On the eve of his retrospective (which runs through Jan. 16) at the Guggenheim Museum, the 69-year-old painter sat at a back table in the museum's cafe and recalled how it all started.
"I drew some charcoal things in '57 or '58--Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse," he said. "They were still kind of De Kooningesque. I got the idea practically overnight to go from these things to 'Look Mickey' in 1961...It flew in the face of everything I was taught. I realized that I had been making paintings out of all the good things, like trying to hold the composition together, and School of Paris brushstrokes, and thick and thin paint, and...I realized that painting isn't just a combination of all the good things you can think of." So he did what every decent artist since Delacroix has done--rejected what he learned in art school. He not only helped invent a new, contagious style, but was instrumental in putting "scare quotes" around the whole idea of art. Owing largely to Lichtenstein, a whole generation of artists has replaced creation with appropriation, style with strategy. True, Duchamp had the same effect. But he was a philosophical gadfly whose work wasn't really looked at. Lichtenstein has produced snappy pictures for three decades, during an age of irony he himself helped to create.
Born and raised in Manhattan, Lichtenstein decamped to the Midwest to study art. "That's why I went to Ohio State: there were very few places then that had studio art." he recalls. "Later, I taught at [the State University of New York at] Oswego because I thought I was going back to New York from Ohio. But it turned out I was even farther away from New York there." In 1960, Lichtenstein landed a teaching job at Rutgers University, not that far down the New Jersey Turnpike from New York. He was close enough to schlep several of his first pop canvases to an emerging dealer named Leo Castelli, who agreed to represent him. In 1962, Lichtenstein had his first solo show of pop pictures. It included monochrome paintings--such as the happily glazed--looking homemaker in "The Refrigerator," derived from newspaper ads as well as blown-up panels, Benday dots and all, from comic books like "Girls' Romances" and "All American Men of War."
As the retrospective's curator, Diane Waldman, writes, "Now that he had established his system of codes, he was free to improvise on any subject." And did he ever: first, parodic homages to Mondrian and Picasso, then the oversize comic-book treatment for still lifes and landscapes, and then a gargantuan sendup of patriotic art deco in "Preparedness" (1968). Looking back and ahead at the same time, Lichtenstein says, "I don't think I'm doing anything that Picasso didn't do to Velazquez, although it may not be that good. It probably looked at the time as though the Velazquez had been vulgarized, but now it looks like both Picasso and Velazquez are art."
Lichtenstein, though, was triple-tracking; in addition to pop takes on lowbrow images and highbrow painters, he was also interested in seeing what he could do with perception itself. Two black-and-white blow-ups of school-composition notebook covers from 1964 came first: the obvious pun on "composition" and enlarging the fake-marble paper pattern until it turns into a swarm of autonomous, swimming shapes. From these paintings, it's a short, stunning jump to his huge, hard-edge renderings of the kind of kamikaze brushstrokes that turned postwar New York into modem art's world headquarters. In the early '70s, Lichtenstein topped out on visual paradox with the perhaps overly elegant "mirror" paintings. "A mirror reflects the room," he explains. "It has no reality of its own. But comic-book and commercial artists allow some kind of tonal graduation so you realize it's supposed to be a mirror."
Lichtenstein's latest works are called "Interiors." In "Interior with Mirrored Wall" (1991), Lichtenstein satirizes the kind of deluxe digs occupied by art collectors. More important, he tightens his perspective, thickens his outline and allows himself a whole slew of pale decorator colors. Consequently, the customary comic-book reference--with its implied dumbness--is just about gone. Although they arise quite logically from Lichtenstein's earlier work, the "Interiors" could signal the appearance of a sincere Lichtenstein, who might have evolved directly from abstraction had "Look Mickey" never been overnight-mailed from his muse.
Standing at the top of the Guggenheim's spiral ramp, having traversed Lichtenstein's career in a slow ascent, you're tempted to wish that his last work didn't look so much like what went earlier. Duchamp spent the last 20 years of his life constructing a hyperrealistic sculpture of a nude woman holding a lantern, lying in the weeds (visible only through a peephole at the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Lichtenstein has always made some flat, multicolored sculptures; would that he had something else up his sleeve to confound both the haters of pop art who can't take a joke and the lovers of camp who think art is nothing but one. That might be the irony to end them all.