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COVER STORY : A Few Good Colors Are Plenty : Has it really been 30 years since Roy Lichtenstein first brought us those cartoon paintings? Well, yes. And now take a guided tour with the artist through his life, times and all those dots

January 30, 1994|SUSAN MORGAN | Susan Morgan is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles.

NEW YORK — On a bright winter morning, before the arctic weather descended upon the city, Roy Lichtenstein walks into the Guggenheim Museum. Although it's a Thursday and the museum is closed to visitors, the entire building feels animated by a spectacular retrospective of Lichtenstein's work. The paintings--with their bold outlines and primary-colored images--spiral around the Frank Lloyd Wright ramp, spilling out like a brilliant reel of film unwinding.

The show, organized by Diane Waldman, Guggenheim senior curator and deputy director, opens at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art today, featuring 88 paintings and sculptures spanning the artist's three-decade career. (In 1969, Waldman organized the Guggenheim's first Lichtenstein retrospective; 25 years later, she returned to his work with unflagging enthusiasm.)

Lichtenstein's choosing to work within a limited palette might seem harshly deliberate (he once told a journalist that "yellow is yellow and red is red. . . . To me, skies are the same everywhere: A sky is simply blue dots"), but his visual lexicon--everything for the perfect home found through the Yellow Pages, troubled girls lost in romance-comic episodes, brusque men engaged in business and war, and the formidable icons of modernist art and architecture--is extraordinarily rich and facile. Lichtenstein knows his material, and he riffs on it with a virtuoso's flair. "Like Stravinsky or Thelonious Monk," he says, "I like making dissonances in my work."

When Lichtenstein and I meet on this winter day to view his retrospective together, his look is completely unself-conscious, reassuringly casual: well-worn canvas deck shoes, a boat-neck sweater, his silver hair tied into a ponytail about the size of a small sable watercolor brush.

He's surprisingly unassuming, considering his fame and influence, and yet he is known for that. In the mid-'70s, when Conceptual artist Don Celender produced a pack of art-world baseball trading cards for Ivan Karp's O. K. Harris Gallery, Lichtenstein's read: "The nicest guy in the art world." In a Vanity Fair profile published last summer, the 70-year-old artist was described as "preternaturally boyish" and remarkably shy.

In 1970, Lichtenstein moved to Southampton, on the eastern end of Long Island; for 13 years, it was his sole residence and studio. He now divides his time between Southampton and Manhattan's West Village. "I do love the light out on Long Island," he remarks. "But I always painted the entablatures (architectural images) out there and the seascapes in the city."

Before we begin our tour at the Guggenheim, Lichtenstein takes off his jacket and casts about the gallery looking for somewhere to leave it. The public cloakroom is closed, and the sole guard who has been assigned to us is lurking at a respectful distance. Lichtenstein gingerly places his jacket on a ledge at the bottom of the museum's ramp. Still hesitant, he looks up: His paintings have taken complete command of the space--he can probably leave his jacket anywhere he wants to.

In the center of the ground-floor gallery stands a painted bronze sculpture from 1981 titled "Brushstroke." It's a petrified Expressionist gesture, an image of fluidity rendered in the most rigid, solid way possible. Lichtenstein delightedly describes the sculpture and its anti-intuitive concept as "absurd." As he rolls the word around in his mouth, his enormous blue eyes widen and he smiles rather slyly--absurdity is clearly delicious.

In his paintings, Lichtenstein has rendered, with dense black outlines, such ordinarily ephemeral events as sunsets and explosions. "I think it is absurd," says Lichtenstein, "to outline brush strokes and paint drips and to make water glasses and light rays more palpable."

Lichtenstein is a New Yorker, born and bred. He grew up across Central Park from the Guggenheim in the West 80s. He attended the Franklin School for Boys, graduating in 1940. He spent that summer studying with American Social Realist painter Reginald Marsh at the Art Students League.

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\o7 RL: New York was so different in those days. Obviously there were the same streets and many of the same buildings but so many fewer cars. There were no traffic jams, and there was always a place to park. The subway only cost a nickel, and you could go anywhere. The cars had woven-rush seats, and men would stand up to give women their seats. My mother said that in her day, when they still had trolley cars, if a woman got on the trolley, all the men would stand up and tip their hats. Can you imagine that? They certainly don't do that a lot anymore. It's hard to imagine those days when no one would leave the house without a hat.

SM: As a child, did you visit the Metropolitan Museum?

RL: I went there a lot; it was always empty. All of the museums then were relatively empty.

SM: They didn't have scarves and coffee mugs for sale around every corner.

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