September 13, 2006

Lichtenstein's American Indian Encounters

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Lichtenstein's American Indian Encounters

ith his signature abstract, geometric shapes, Benday Dots and onomatopoetic lettering, American Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein was a master at redefining an iconic image. He would deconstruct it and reappear with an impression that turned an original interpretation on its head. The final product forced his audience to stand back and consider alternate viewpoints.

Lichtenstein's method of questioning how mass media affects perceptions was a constant theme throughout his career, during his most famous series of Pop Art and in his lesser-known Amerindian series.

The Parrish Art Museum will pay homage to this latter body of work in its upcoming exhibit "Roy Lichtenstein: American Indian Encounters," which will feature more than 30 paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures, including a rare sketchbook of American Indian design motifs. It will open September 24.

The exhibit is organized by the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey in conjunction with the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, and the Parrish jumped at the chance to participate.

"He was an artist of international stature who also happened to live literally a stone's throw from the museum on Gin Lane [with his wife Dorothy], so he's an artist that certainly collectively is very close to our hearts . . ." said Alicia Longwell, chief curator at the Parrish.

It will also be the third time the Parrish has shown a collection of work by this artist, the previous two occurring in 1982, with a retrospective and in 1995, when the National Gallery in Washington D.C. circulated his prints.

Cezzane, Picasso, Miro and Klee were just a few of the many artists who inspired Lichtenstein (October 27, 1923 - September 29, 1997), setting the foundation for what would eventually become his trademark style. Throughout his career he experimented with Cubism, Surrealism, Purism, Expressionism and Futurism, with his first mature body of work emerging in the 1950s. He is best known, however, for his reproductions and parodies of American pop culture images, drawing heavily from advertisements and romance and war comics in the 1960s.

His most famous image is perhaps the comic strip-styled Whaam! (1963), featuring a fighter pilot firing a rocket into an enemy plane with a flash of red and yellow. The caption reads: "I pressed the fire control . . . and ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky . . ."

Lichtenstein produced his Amerindian pieces in the late '70s, using Cubist-abstraction and culling from 19th-century American history paintings of Native American themes for inspiration. The Amerindian period may have been his shortest, lasting only from the spring to the early fall of 1979. And it has never received the critical acclaim that his work a decade earlier has.

It might have been too "esoteric," for the general public, who didn't understand the idea of copying "an obscure American history painting and doing it in a Cubist style that maybe looked a little too much like Picasso, which was sometimes implied by the critics of that period," posited Gail Stavitsky, chief curator at the Montclair Museum. "I think maybe people didn't know what to make of them."

There is little evidence the artist used his work intentionally to inspire social change or make a political statement. Still, according to Stavitsky's book Roy Lichtenstein: American Indian Encounters, the artist said he was fascinated by the cliché of what "looks Indian," positioning "the Caucasian or the European view of the Indian against the Indian's view of himself."

Rather than showing disdain for Caucasian interpretations of iconic Indian images, Lichtenstein used humor and irony to break down those interpretations and create new ones.

He was interested in "taking the cliché type of subject, the myth of the American Indian as part of a vanishing race and somehow making it fresh, updating it, which he did with his Cubist vocabulary . . . But he was really fascinated with the fact that it was a kind of cultural cliché," said Stavitsky.

His viewers, he hoped, "would appreciate the visual unity and harmony of the composition," and "would realize the sense of how American Indian cultures were interpreted by mass media, by American popular culture," she said.

And the irony of "the American Indian as a vital mythic component of our country's heritage" never eluded him, Stavitsky continued. A Bad Treaty, for example, allowed Lichtenstein to show how peace treaties between Native Americans and the United States government ultimately ended with the tribes getting the short end of the stick.

"I would call it kind of like an affectionate irony. I think his sense of humor was always kind of whimsical and gentle rather than too barbed, for example," she said.

Unity was also an important element for the artist. He was well educated in the subject early on at Ohio State University -- using symmetry and repetition, which can be seen in a lot of his work, as well as the use of limited colors.

Reinterpreting iconic images was for Lichtenstein a way "to erase the meaning of the originals" and to create his own unique, unified statement, he once said. With a delicate hand and good humor, he used irony to illustrate how commercial printing techniques influence our perceptions.

The exhibit "Roy Lichtenstein: American Indian Encounters" at the Parrish Art Museum will run from September 24 to December 31.

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