MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Our story today is about an art exhibit, one that holds appeal for parents and kids alike. It's an exhibition of work by the painter Roy Lichtenstein, whose canvases some people say look as if they come from the pages of comic books. NPR special correspondent and "Metro Connection" contributor, Susan Stamberg, headed to the National Gallery of Art to learn the story behind Lichtenstein's famous pop art images.
MS. SUSAN STAMBERG
You're not supposed to use cell phones in museums, but at the Lichtenstein show, I just had to make a call.
MS. SUSAN STAMBERG
This is Susan Stamberg for National Public Radio. I'm at an exhibition of works by Roy Lichtenstein and one of them is called "Desk Calendar," something he made in 1962, and your phone number is on it. Could you call me back...
MS. SUSAN STAMBERG
Never got a call back, but it was a real number just as the date on the open black and white pages of the "Desk Calendar" in the painting, Monday, May 21, was the real 1962 date. Just as real comics inspired his '60s works, angsty comic frames often of ladies in distress. National Gallery curator, Harry Cooper, inspects one with me.
MS. SUSAN STAMBERG
A beautiful, very fraught looking woman, they're all fraught. She's got a furrow between her eyebrows and she's holding on with both hands to the telephone and she's saying, ohhh, all right. And you know she's talking to some fellow.
MR. HARRY COOPER
What I like about that painting is the way she is holding the phone and she's caressing that phone and I think in a way she would rather have a relationship with that receiver than with whoever is on the other end of the line.
Wonder what he's saying to her and what she's agreeing to? Ah, all right.
I don't know. That, you know, and one thing about Roy is that he really looked hard for these frames that had a kind of crux in the story, in them.
And lets us imagine the back story and what might happen next. Interesting, because he uses such a cold mechanical process, dot, dot, dot. He was really painting digital pixels before there were pixels to evoke such strong emotions, dot, dot, dot. So did he paint each one by hand?
No, he didn't. In fact, you could argue he didn't paint any of them by hand.
Lichtenstein used various kinds of stencils with perforated dot patterns. He'd brushed his paint across the top of the stencil and the colors dropped through as perfect circles and elevated commercial images from comics, ads into high art. In the 1960's young American artists were looking for a way to make their marks.
Andy Warhol did it with soup cans, Roy Lichtenstein did it with dots, inventing pop art, comic book frames were his starting point. But he wasn't making exact reproductions.
He's always making these alterations. He did it because he felt these things could be improved and they weren't quite art but he could make them art.
By changing a hue, widening a line, expanding the dots.
Tiny things that would help make a really iconic image, an image that I think would stand up, you know, would last on the wall, last in our memories.
You can always tell a Lichtenstein, the vocabulary of dots and he makes you laugh. Another fraught woman, this one drowning thinks, I don't care, I'd rather sink than call Brad for help. The fraughts are from a series on romance. In another series, brushstrokes he addresses that basic element of art. In 1993, he told WHYY's "Fresh Air" that he was painting the idea of a brushstroke. You do not, for a minute, think it's real.
MR. ROY LICHTENSTEIN
You think it's a picture of a brushstroke and, you know, that's a kind of absurd thing to do. It has that built-in absurdity and that's the reason I like it.
Dorothy Lichtenstein, the painter's widow, says her husband dotted beyond the post-World War II abstract expressionists, Pollock with his drips, de Kooning with his brush sweeps but he kept the past in his rearview mirror.
MS. DOROTHY LICHTENSTEIN
Certainly his brushstroke paintings were an ode in some way to abstract expressionism. But, I mean, you could look at the history of art as the history of the brushstroke as well.
Lichtenstein had some trouble making brushstrokes but he used his dots to reproduce some of his greatest brushy predecessors. Monet, for instance, is his wonderful "Rouen Cathedral" series of the late 1890s. In 1969, Lichtenstein's pale, dotty cathedrals become glowing shimmers. Dorothy Lichtenstein says her husband went to museums in search of the masters.
Well, it was actually great going to a museum with Roy because everything was kind of grist for his mind. He was always looking at paintings and art in a way as to what he might, how he might be able to transform it.
Picasso was his hero above all, Matisse was right up there. But it was really Picasso he attacked first.
Attacked, curator Harry Cooper says, not tackled. He was paying his respects to Picasso and Mondrian and Monet and others, but...
It's not just homage, it's also bringing these artists down to the level of dots and comic vocabulary.
Is that a cruel act, bringing them down?
I think so. I think artists are always very anxious about their predecessors and the anxiety of influence. So what he said about Picasso is that he realized that he could make it his own and that felt good.
Dots all folks, sorry. Curator Cooper says Lichtenstein has had a real impact.
We can't go anywhere without seeing it, pop art. I mean, he's been taken up in design and in larger culture. Nobody has imitated him but he really opened up and showed that pop art was not just a gimmick, not just a joke.
Maybe, but you'll still get some good laughs at the National Gallery's Roy Lichtenstein Retrospective until mid-January.
That was NPR special correspondent and occasional "Metro Connection" contributor, Susan Stamberg.
And that's "Metro Connection" for this week. We heard from WAMU's Sabri Ben-Achour, Emily Berman, Jonathan Wilson and Tara Boyle along with NPR's Susan Stamberg. WAMU's managing editor of news is Meymo Lyons. "Metro Connection's" managing producer is Tara Boyle. Lauren Landau is our editorial assistant. Our brand-new intern is Rachel Schuster whom we're thrilled to welcome abroad here at "Metro Connection" HQ. Thanks, as always, to the WAMU engineering and digital media teams for their help with production and the "Metro Connection" website.
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We hope you can join us next week when we'll bring you our annual show on Traditions. We'll meet a local family that manages to hold onto weekly rituals despite living in far-flung corners of the globe. We'll learn how Washingtonians with both Jewish and Christian backgrounds blend and respect both faiths at this time of year. And we'll visit a day shelter with a brand-new tradition, bringing clients stories front and center on the D.C. stage.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #1
We're always trying to find new voices in theater and new stories to tell and we've got a wealth of stories and voices so it seemed like a natural connection.
I'm Rebecca Sheir and thanks for listening to "Metro Connection," a production of WAMU 88.5 news.
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