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Review: Roy Lichtenstein/Art Institute of Chicago

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Roy Lichtenstein, "Alka Seltzer," 1966. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

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“They thought they were modern,” Roy Lichtenstein said of the art of the Machine Age. “We don’t think that we’re modern in the same way now.” The integration of life with advanced technology seemed as unsurprising to Lichtenstein in 1967, when he made that statement, as the integration of life with consumption does now, when even the atavistic charms of “artisanal” and “DIY” have faded. His signature move of homogenizing high-, middle- and lowbrow modern art and design by using traditional handicraft to mimic four-color printing and Benday dots was merely a characterization of the modern turn in painting. “Its flatness is linked to the flatness of pages, posters and tapestries,” Jacques Ranciere said of abstract art, in 2004. “It is the flatness of an interface.”

Along with Lichtenstein’s paintings, which helped to make space in fine art for cartoons, text, appropriation and Raymond Pettibon, there are some nice drawings and sculptures as well in this expansive, expensive retrospective at the Art Institute, including some shiny brass Art Deco pieces that foreshadow Jeff Koons. The graphically frozen moments of a dissolving Alka-Seltzer, Ab-Ex splatters, or radiant explosions balance against the static visual buzz of Magic-Eye Monet tributes, moiré-pattern mirrors and landscapes, and patterned Op Art monochrome product vignettes, including a golf ball and a ball of twine. To go with these mandalas there are the enigmatic ellipsis koans pulled from war and romance comics, like the giant floating female faces portentously murmuring into the phone, “Ohhh… Alright…” or, “Oh Jeff… I love you, too… but…”  And nods to Mondrian, Picasso, Matisse, Chinese landscapes—heroic formalism now available in off-the-rack casual.

Roy Lichtenstein,"Nude with Street Scene," 1995. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

Through flattening modernism’s essentializing depths, Lichtenstein’s iconic clip art puts aesthetic and poetic considerations in quotes—without the comfortingly slick detournement of a Banksy, a Shepard Fairey or an Adbusters magazine. Images exist to inspire nostalgia, it would seem, and Lichtenstein’s own marketing of modernity becomes subsumed in our own memories of memories of interfaces. Like a retail reproduction of Cornell boxes, Proustian cookies, or the Art Institute’s own Miniature Rooms, Lichtenstein’s isolated, magnified motifs are microscopic fragments of a virtual PR past that float still in our cultural unconscious. (Bert Stabler)

Through September 3 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan

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