October 23, 2018

From comic books to fine art: Roy Lichtenstein at the Skirball

The art of Roy Lichtenstein, with his comic book-inspired images and vivid palette, has become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to remember just how radical the Pop artist was when he first burst into the public imagination in the early 1960s. “Pop for the People: Roy Lichtenstein in L.A.,” which opens at the Skirball Cultural Center on Oct. 7, puts the spotlight on the artist’s political and social impact, as well as upon his longstanding collaboration with the prominent Los Angeles fine art printmaking studio Gemini G.E.L.

One of the first pieces visitors will see is “Thunderbolt,” a dramatic 12-foot-tall banner depicting a red hand holding a yellow lightning bolt against a blue background. The hand is colored using evenly spaced circular dots rendered with red and white layers of felted and stitched wool. This 1966 work features Lichtenstein’s signature use of the Ben-Day dot method common in comic-book illustrations.

The show also includes politically themed works, including two Time magazine cover images from 1968: the first of Robert Kennedy as a candidate for the presidency, and the second of a gun pointed straight at the viewer. There are also images of Mao Tse-tung and of the Statue of Liberty, representing the Pop artist’s wide-ranging appropriations of mass-produced, topical images.

Born in 1923, Lichtenstein was the grandson of German Jewish immigrants and grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He fought for three years in World War II alongside other Jewish American soldiers, several of whom were comic book illustrators and introduced Lichtenstein to comics as a form of art-making.

Along with Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, among others, he created what became known as the Pop Art movement in the 1960s — a direct reaction to the heavy-handed masculinity of the Abstract Expressionists who dominated the New York scene at the time. Lichtenstein made seemingly light-hearted works drawn from popular culture that nevertheless raised questions about the values behind American identity.

Artists like Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg and Rauschenberg “were doing things that nobody had ever done before,” said Bethany Montagano, the Skirball show’s curator. 

“By elevating what was considered America’s low culture and low art, like comic books, and raising it to the realm of fine art,” she said, “they made fine art accessible to the American public in ways that had never been achieved before.”

Lichtenstein’s only work to directly address his Jewish roots is a 50-foot, two-panel mural he painted in 1989 and adapted for a fundraising print for the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The work includes references to Pablo Picasso’s bull’s head, Alexander Archipenko’s Cubist figures and Marc Chagall’s violinist, but done in Lichtenstein’s signature hard-edged, pared-down, colorful style, and is included in the Skirball exhibition.

Lichtenstein carving into a wood block for “Head” in 1980. Photo by Sidney B. Felsen

While Lichtenstein had Jewish ancestry and was the child of immigrants to the United States, Skirball museum director Robert Kirschner says the museum’s decision to show his work also has to do with the artist’s interest in social and political issues.

“He was an artist with social impact who had a message that we understand to be essentially democratic, at least within the world of fine art and beyond. He took the everyday and made that the subject of fine art,” Kirschner said. “He was also very engaged in the public realm and took positions on issues of social movements.”

“Pop for the People” presents four decades of Lichtenstein’s work, from the rarely displayed “Ten Dollar Bill” (1956), one of his first Pop pieces that shows a movement away from Abstract Expressionism and Cubism, to two now-iconic works from 1965: “Sunrise” and “Shipboard Girl.” 

From his comic-book prints, the war-related images “Whaam!” (1963) and “As I Opened Fire” (1964) will be displayed alongside the actual comic books from which he appropriated the imagery.

In Los Angeles, Lichtenstein enjoyed a 27-year collaboration with Gemini G.E.L., the esteemed print studio that is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a retrospective exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art called “The Serial Impulse at Gemini G.E.L.” Working with Gemini’s master printmakers, Lichtenstein collaborated on 124 editions of various sizes.

Head (1980), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Dorothy Lichtenstein © 1980 Estate of Roy Lichtenstein / Gemini G.E.L. Photo courtesy of Museum Associates / LACMA

The 1960s marked a renaissance in printmaking, giving artists the ability to make limited editions of their work and allowing the American public access to fine art at a lower cost. In New York, the legendary art dealer Leo Castelli represented Lichtenstein’s work, and Castelli encouraged his artists to create limited-edition prints.

More than 20 of the Lichtenstein works on display at the Skirball were printed at Gemini G.E.L.’s studio in West Hollywood. 

Gemini G.E.L. (Graphic Editions Limited) was founded in 1966 by master printer Ken Tyler, who studied at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles, along with Sidney Felsen and Stanley Grinstein, who were fraternity brothers in Zeta Beta Tau, a historically Jewish fraternity, at USC.

Tyler had worked with artist and educator Josef Albers at Tamarind, and Albers’ “White Line Square” series became the first production at Gemini G.E.L. Albers was followed in 1967 by Rauschenberg, who opened the door to other contemporary artists, including Oldenburg, Frank Stella, Johns, Ed Ruscha, Ken Price and Lichtenstein. The artists would often be guests in the homes of the Felsen and Grinstein families, and they all developed close friendships. In the 1960s, the studio had a can-do approach, influenced by the proximity of Hollywood and the aeronautics industry.

“Our attitude from Day One was, we’ll do anything you want,” Felsen said in an interview. 

In addition to works on paper, the studio made sculptural editions of drawings out of metal, wood, plastic, fabric and paper. Over the past 50 years, Gemini has produced about 2,000 editions of works on paper and about 300 editions of sculpture, and has become a pioneer in developing new processes for intaglio, lithography, screenprints, and woodcuts.

In 1979, the architect Frank Gehry, who was very close to many artists, designed an addition to Gemini’s studio that includes an artist’s workshop and gallery space. In addition, Gemini has printed dozens of editions of Gehry’s sketches.

The studio’s collaboration with Lichtenstein began in 1969. As Felsen recalled, “The first series he did with us was based on [French impressionist painter Claude Monet’s] Rouen Cathedrals and [Monet’s] haystacks. Roy ended up being a regular. He came out here at least every other year.”

Lichtenstein’s “Expressionist Woodcuts” series is included in LACMA’s “The Serial Impulse at Gemini G.E.L.” retrospective. Its seven prints were inspired by Lichtenstein’s visit to Los Angeles in 1978, where he studied Robert Gore Rifkind’s collection of German Expressionist graphic art. The pieces don’t reference specific works, but rather an entire genre.

Lichtenstein enjoyed mining the themes and styles of earlier artists. Just as “Haystack” referenced Monet, the Skirball also will show the Pablo Picasso-inspired “Bull Profile” and the Salvador Dalí-esque “Surrealist.” One room of the Skirball installation will be turned into a three-dimensional reimagination of Lichtenstein’s 1992 painting, “Bedroom at Arles,” which in turn was based on Vincent van Gogh’s “Bedroom in Arles.” 

The show also highlights Lichtenstein’s humor and openness to creating unconventional work, with his art emblazoned on a tea set, a dress, a bowling shirt, paper plates and even a shopping bag with an image of a turkey. 

What once seemed revolutionary and daringly caustic in the art world is now seen as enormously accessible and light-hearted work, and as a result his work has been mass-produced as well as endlessly parodied over the years. Lichtenstein’s bold style has also had a huge impact on advertising, marketing and fashion. Looking back on his career, it’s surprising to see just how revolutionary Lichtenstein was. 

“Lichtenstein was called one of the worst artists in America when he made these comic book works, and he was really criticized,” Montagano said. “But the public fastened onto it. And he completely democratized it.”

“Pop for the People: Roy Lichtenstein in L.A.” is on display at the Skirball Cultural Center from Oct. 7 through March 12, 2017. For more information, visit skirball.org.

“The Serial Impulse at Gemini G.E.L.” is on display at LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion now through Jan. 2, 2017. For more information, visit  lacma.org