Lichtenstein is behind by a few lengths, challenged hard by the immeasurably skilled painter James Rosenquist, whose stalled career could be in for a revival as art returns to its long-dying love affair with painting. (Some of the best works in Brooklyn Museum of Art's maligned Sensation were by painters like Fiona Rae and Richard Patterson, whose deft image collages--Rae--and glamorous hyperrealism --Patterson--seem to have roots in Rosenquist, among other artists.)
Lichtenstein splits the difference between those two pop painters. His painting is, technically, highly accomplished, even as he hides most evidence of his handiwork. He engages conceptual issues that have moved in and out of favor over the last 20 years, including the role of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, as well as popular culture and gender roles. But to look at a grouping of his art now--at least, right now--only feels like a look into the past.
Part of the problem is Lich- tenstein's failure to change much as an artist. His signature painting style, built from the methods of comic book printing--Ben Day dots, hatching, solid black lines--never changes much, even as he refines it between the early '60s and his death in the late '90s. He attempts shifts in subject matter, moving from his trademark revisionings of comic books in the '60s to finding imagery in modernist art movements--particularly surrealism, art deco, and cubism. But his own, largely unvarying style coagulates into a form of mannerism. And at that point the question becomes, what does it mean to, say, reproduce a painting genre of the 1910s using a painting style derived from the comics of the '50s? And the answer becomes, not much.
All of which is not intended to downplay the very real greatness of much of Lichtenstein's work in the '60s--work which dominates this show. In two series, one drawing from war comics, the other from romance comics, Lichtenstein concentrates the powerful gender stereotypes endemic to those genres, then goes further. His war heroes, often seen as satires of the masculine impulse to destroy, are also suffused with anxiety, even terror. Single frames plucked from their narratives, these images give no hint as to their stories' outcomes. As his characters fire their missiles, they may be on the brink of death themselves.
Lichtenstein's technique can bring into focus the wonderfully economized pictorial conventions of comic book artists: reflections on a pool's surface suggested by a tidy pattern of parallel broken lines; a paintstroke fully evoked using only black lines and a single unvarying color; the use of hatch-mark shadows to create a psychologically darker tone. His series of paintings and prints of mirrors--whose rich emptiness is conveyed in a virtuoso display of Ben Day dots, cartoon highlights, and hatching--is wonderful. His technique improved over the years, even as its rigors largely straitjacketed his ability to remain relevant.
Lichtenstein's work is better seen, at this juncture in history, in group shows where current artists and his contemporaries help bring his thematic concerns into focus, lessening the emphasis on his deadening technique. A small show of interiors at the Museum of Modern Art a few years back hung a large black-and-white interior done by Lichtenstein in the '90s near a gargantuan table by Robert Gober and a cast of the interior of an English bedsit by Rachel Whiteread, underscoring the memorial quality in Lichtenstein's work, as well as his ability to depict the fictional constructions behind mundane domestic imagery. SAM's show tells us a lot about Lichtenstein's career, but very little about why we should still be interested in him.