Pop art and parody

Hidden behind a green folding panel in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art’s reception room is a collection of 13 rarely exhibited Roy Lichtenstein drawings, contributing to the museum’s collection of Lichtenstein’s comic strip-styled pop art. The drawings, primarily of graphite and colored pencil, are all studies he completed in preparation for 12 of his paintings, including such famous works as “Bedroom at Arles,” a hilarious nod to Van Gogh’s painting of the same title, with a refreshingly modern spin.

Lichtenstein’s drawings, which were recently donated to the museum by his family, not only reveal his process, but also incorporate aesthetic elements from countless periods of art history – making his seemingly modern works span a far larger time than would be expected.

While keeping in mind Rothko, Pollack and other abstract expressionists, Lichtenstein combines the graphic energy of pop art with the typical 16th century Renaissance triptych, or three-paneled artwork, in “Study for ‘Cow Triptych (Going Abstract).'” In this piece, Lichtenstein begins with a painting of a realistic-looking cow. The next two panels show the cow’s progression from realism to abstraction, with the aid of Lichtenstein’s token comic book-like composition and bold colors. The resulting drawing is an amalgamation of two completely different artistic movements – a theme common to this exhibit.

The influence of German expressionism of the early 20th century is inherent in Lichtenstein’s “Study for ‘Expressionist Head'” and “‘Study for ‘Razzmatazz.'” In both works Lichtenstein has added a wood grain pattern reminiscent of the woodcuts of the German movement. Lichtenstein includes his own graphic energy, however, by making the wood grain large, bold and patterned.

In “Study for ‘Entablature,” Lichtenstein even ventures to combine the minimalism of pop art with the decorative symmetry of Greek and Roman architecture. In this manner, Lichtenstein manages to point out the similarities between two periods in art history generally considered to be polar opposites. He shows us how classical art and architecture of the Greeks and Romans is still relevant in contemporary art – possibly much more so than previously imagined. By blurring the borders in the chronology of art history and intermixing different time periods, Lichtenstein points out that art is not ephemeral.

The final drawing in the exhibit is a large study for Lichtenstein’s painting “Bedroom at Arles.” In this study, while looking directly toward Van Gogh’s masterpiece, he adds modern furniture and appliances to the room – a witty and inventive interpretation of the same painting completed nearly 100 years earlier. This drawing in particular is not to be missed.

The National Gallery’s East Building offers a rare opportunity to see the beginning stages of a Lichtenstein painting by displaying these pencil studies. The combining of the old and the new, the simple and the elaborate, is characteristic of this exhibit. As Lichtenstein points out, even classical architecture can find a snug home with contemporary art – it may just have to move the furniture around a bit.

“Roy Lichtenstein: A New Gift of Drawings” will remain at the East Building of the National Gallery of Art until July 24.

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