The exhibition “Roy Lichtenstein, multiple visions” at the BAM in Mons, prompts me to write this article. Certainly, one cannot qualify this artist as a colorist. However, the scenography of this exhibition, the artist’s graphical researches and exploration of interesting supports, and his limited palette deserve to be considered.
In this photo everything is said. Are Lichtenstein’s works to art what fast food is to gastronomic culture? Do they appeal more to the masses than to the elite? The question asked by the Life journalist in 1964 “Is [Roy Lichtensteins] the worst artist in America?” suggests it.
Since then, however, while the public and critics remain divided, investors are not. His works continue to increase in value. See below the price of two paintings: $27,030,500 for “White Brushstroke I” and $24,501,500 for “Head of a Woman,” sold in 2020 and 2017 respectively.
Fast food, fast art?
Roy Lichtenstein is a hard worker. There is nothing rushed about these simple images. A perfectionist, he sometimes reworks a print a dozen times to arrive at a rendering that suits him. The printed form is his source of inspiration.
The allusion to fast food is part of the “Pop art” register. In the visitor’s guide we read, “Little by little, the color of the object becomes for Lichtenstein object-color.” Here, the hot dog loses its materiality; the colors and the drawing are more a synthesis than an object. The hot-dog disappears to become almost iconic.
In addition to everyday objects, advertising and comic books are sources of inspiration for the artist. Even the traditional colors of these media are found there and almost always at the same level of saturation: red, yellow, blue and of course black and white. In this respect, the artist could have illustrated the Challenge #3.
Graphism and printing
Everywhere in the artist’s work, we find this fascination with the print screen. Printing such type of pattern plays on perception to create, from a limited number of colors, additional shades. For example, to create a gray, the printer spaces black lines. The size of the lines and the width of the spaces determine the value of the perceived gray. By giving the screen an unusually large size, the artist highlights this process.
If you look at the still life below, far enough away, the background will appear gray even though that color is not in the painting.
This process gives rise to very graphic images. Their simplicity is only apparent. Notice indeed the complexity of the rendering of the glass and the effects of light on it. A similar graphical work is performed to render light reflection on the teapot above. These paintings provides additional interesting examples for the challenge #6 devoted to light effects.
The Ben-Day Points
A print screen pattern is not always linear. Indeed, the Ben-Day dots technique uses overlapping disks. In this case, several phenomena work together. The two slightly offset dot frames produce a new color by subtractive synthesis. Then, the color stimuli are merged on our retina by optical mixing. See the article on color complements for a recall of these definitions.
Below, the blue screen on red creates almost black by subtractive synthesis. Note that the red dots result from the impression of yellow dots on the magenta background (subtractive synthesis again). Black occupies a size which varies according to the superposition of the blue and red points. Seen from afar, these different fragments of red, blue, and black disks as well as the magenta background are assimilated by the sensors of our retina; we speak then of optical mixture. This process makes it possible to create other colors than those which are used for the impression.
Lichtenstein made this dot pattern his artistic signature. It is omnipresent in both the printed works and the sculptures. Again it is the magnification of this print screen pattern that gives a special character to the painting in which it appears.
Roy Lichtenstein’s sculptures are playful, joyful and often colorful. As with his paintings, while he does not limit himself to black, the artist uses a limited range of colors: yellow, black, blue and red.
The final room of the exhibition shares the artist’s research in terms of support materials. Sometimes we discover tapestries where felt brings a characteristic visual touch, sometimes it is ceramic or even stainless steel. Rowlux, however, remains one of his favorite supports.
At BAM, for this exhibition, everything has been deployed to magnify the artist’s work. The staging, including the choice of the colors for the walls, the graphic annotations on the floor, the communication work, the catalog, the visitor’s guide, everything contributes to give a coherence to the visual reception of this exhibition. Personally I was very sensitive to this.