Roy Lichtenstein. The painter’s name is linked with his signature comic-book images of women, their thoughts rising in text bubbles above tentacles of tousled hair, mounds of tears leaking from their eyes. In 1993, a blockbuster Lichtenstein retrospective at the Guggenheim, some 200 pieces strong, sealed the painter’s reputation as a prime instigator of Pop art. This week, another major Lichtenstein show (“Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective”) arrives at the National Gallery, fresh from the Art Institute of Chicago where it opened earlier this year, with a slightly different take. In the 15,000 square feet that the National Gallery has devoted to the exhibit, the comic-book women from the 1960s occupy exactly one room.
Lichtenstein (1923-1997) was so prolific that there are a lot of ways to slice and dice his output. (It’s notable how relatively little overlap there is between the Guggenheim show and the 135 works exhibited at the National Gallery.) His signature style, of course, remains constant from the early 1960s, when he began exploring mass-media conventions of rendering three-dimensional objects, with three-color printing and screens of Benday dots. He started out with images taken from phone books and newspaper ads and comic books — a golf ball, a spray can, Mickey Mouse — and over the years broadened his range of recognizable cultural icons to include canonical works of art history: Matisse still lifes, Picasso nudes, Chinese landscapes. All were part of an ongoing exploration of how objects are rendered in two dimensions, and how images become iconic or meaningless, or both, when processed through a mass-market filter. And most resorted at least in places to the trademark dots.