Look Mickey, Roy Lichtenstein, 1961
The first half of the 1960s was the apogee of what might be termed the Age of Cool—as defined by that quality of being simultaneously with-it and disengaged, in control but nonchalant, knowing but ironically self-aware, and above all inscrutably undemonstrative.
Coolness (which was largely but not exclusively a male attribute) suffused American culture back then, from our supremely compartmentalized commander in chief, John Kennedy, to the action-movie star Steve McQueen, nicknamed “The King of Cool,” and from the middle-class cool of the TV talk-show host Johnny Carson to the far-out jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, whose LP album Birth of the Cool could serve as the soundtrack for that brief interlude before things suddenly turned hot toward the end of the Sixties. Coolness even had its own philosopher-theoretician, Marshall McLuhan, whose influential treatise Understanding Media (1964) codified comic books and television as “cool” means of communication.
Today, a quarter-century after Warhol’s death and fifteen years after Lichtenstein’s (in a hideous coincidence, both unexpectedly succumbed after what had been deemed routine hospital procedures), they remain the two Pop artists best known to the general public, if only in the most simplistic terms, with Warhol as the Campbell’s Soup guy and Lichtenstein as the cartoon guy. A pair of exhibitions that nearly overlapped this spring—a major one on Lichtenstein now at the Art Institute of Chicago before it travels internationally and a numerically comparable but physically more compact one on Warhol at the McNay Museum in San Antonio that was seen only there—offer telling contrasts between these two consummately cool customers.
The last comprehensive survey of Lichtenstein’s work took place in 1993, four years before he died at seventy-three. Mounted by the Guggenheim Museum and organized by the artist’s close friend Diane Waldman, that overview presented a body of work that, as fate would have it, turned out to be more or less complete. One might therefore have expected that there was by now little that had not already been seen from an artist who has been given more than 250 solo exhibitions.
Yet the Chicago retrospective includes several pieces unfamiliar even to experts, such as four little-known 1996 abstractions that combine Lichtenstein’s signature Ben-Day dots (a printing photo-reproduction method perfected by Benjamin Day Jr. in 1879) and closely spaced stripes of his Pop period with the Abstract Expressionist brushwork that he employed in his earliest paintings, then abandoned, but ultimately reembraced (in highly stylized form) as yet another useful tool in his well-stocked arsenal of techniques. This quartet of smallish mixed-metaphor canvases, which follows the exhibition’s knockout opening salvo—Look Mickey (1961), the painter’s first full-fledged Pop painting, which features the eponymous Disney mouse and Donald Duck in an antic face-off cribbed directly from a Golden Book borrowed from the Lichtenstein children—underscores the artist’s creative dilemma of how to advance beyond his reputation-making cartoon formula of the early Sixties.