A Splotch, a Dot and a Stroke of Genius

Pop Artist Roy Lichtenstein Shares His World in Black and White


Published: October 7, 2010

Fun. It’s a word you solemnly hear when walking through an art exhibition. Hell, it’s a word you never hear when walking through an art exhibition. Roy Lichtenstein knew how to have fun.

It’s not every day that an artist depicts an Alka-Seltzer fizzing in a glass of water or the directions on how to cock a BB gun. Yet Lichtenstein shares his fascination with 1950s pop culture and consumerism in such a relevant way that it almost doesn’t feel like you’re looking at art. His work makes the viewer feel how one should when visiting an art exhibition—comfortable, unafraid and mad at yourself for not thinking of it first.

“Roy Lichtenstein: The Black and White Drawings, 1961-1968” is currently on display at the Morgan Library and Museum through Jan. 2. The 55 pencil, marker and ink drawings, which have been compiled from art museums across the U.S. and Europe, celebrate the beginnings of one of art’s most entertaining and original individuals to ever drag a pencil across paper.

The artist used vibrant primary colors usually found in the panels of romance comics, post-WWII comics and cheesy advertisements. However, the staple that left a defining mark on the art world was the development and imitation of his Benday dots—lightly stenciled dots that conveyed shadow and reflection without the use of shading from a pencil.

The highlight of the exhibit is his use of the Benday dots in nearly all of the drawings. In the piece “Reckon Not, Sir!” the cowboy’s black and white face is illuminated with light, stenciled dots that fight against the background of the thicker, darker dots, creating a brilliant contrast. The drawing looks as if the artist  printed it fresh off the press.

After falling out with the community of Abstract Expressionists that called New York City home in the 1950s, Lichtenstein branched out and soon set himself on a new path—a path that has been excellently narrated at the Morgan Library and Museum’s latest exhibition.

The elegant Morgan Library and Museum is situated in a beautiful section of Madison Avenue, playing perfect host to Lichtenstein’s “as American as apple pie” art. Situated to your right as you walk into the gallery, the curation is in the style of Lichtenstein himself: charming, minimalist and welcoming.

At the start of the exhibit, the viewer sees his roots in Abstract Expressionism in two drawings, inspired by the then newly created Disney Corporation, of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. The drawings share creative and emotional chaos, depicting his baby steps into a maturity all his own.

The drawings reveal in great detail and plainness Lichtenstein’s ability and talent as a new kind of master draftsman for his time. In pieces like “Woman in Bath” and “I Know How You Must Feel, Brad!,” his tribute to artists who drew the naked female form and those of the Renaissance period, respectively, are conveyed in the slightest manner.

Amidst listening to the classical trio of live strings playing in the main atrium outside the exhibit gallery, the viewer is invited to take a walk with Lichtenstein, be his friend, grab a coffee with him on Madison Avenue and listen to him explain the development of his talent.

The artist described his black and white drawings as “a sort of mindless drawing… very insensitive. At the same time, there’s something very energetic about it.

Although the drawings are a brilliant display of talent, the most intriguing part of the exhibit is Lichtenstein’s installation piece in the center of the room, originally completed while artist-in-residence at the Aspen Center of Contemporary Art in Colorado. Using a few  walls and the original door from the Aspen Center, the installation at the Morgan shows the artist’s humor and versatility, which he brought to this project with the words “knock, knock” depicted on the cracked door.

The drawings are as simple and quirky as the man who created them.  His obsession with the style of commercial illustration forced him to mold these techniques for his personal use. Lichtenstein reminds us of a time in which only five brands were available on a grocer’s shelf rather than the 50 that sit and collect dust today.

It’s nice to see an artist make the public comfortable and at ease with his art work. You don’t have to take a modern art class or know Lichtenstein’s personal history to enjoy his drawings. The works tell all the viewer needs to know.

If Lichtenstein makes you smile at least once during your visit, he’s done his job. The drawings seldom display emotion. But then again, how do you convey emotion while depicting the spreading of jelly on toast? The drawings are relatable to the viewer, familiar. Museum patrons walked up to many of the drawings, leaned forward and tilted their heads to one side as if they were about to take the drawing off the wall and color inside the blackened lines like a young child.

As you go through the exhibit, follow the drawings in the order they are displayed around the perimeter of the gallery. Once you’re done, look at the black and white photograph of Lichtenstein to your right hanging on the wall just before you walked in. Mr. Lichtenstein just said thank you.