The Misbegotten Career of Roy Lichtenstein

42.6 million can be wrong

Guston's hulking Klansmen and cyclopean heads transcend their ridiculous initial impact through subtle colors and textures that fuse their shapes into visceral, slow-burning narratives. Like all great paintings, they have a corporeal presence, an ineffable element that is leached out of Lichtenstein's work by his ponderous formalism. The pilot's huge face in Okay, Hot-Shot harangues the viewer like a billboard; nothing lingers except the advertisement for more product. Lichtenstein kept the brand consistent through an immediately ossified style, cranking everything from Greek columns to Monet's Rouen Cathedral to Ab-Ex brushstrokes through his Image Duplicator (to borrow one of his snider titles).

Lichtenstein's work entices collectors to cough up big bucks, most recently 42.6 million of them at Christie's for Ohhh . . . Alright . . . , a painting featuring one of the artist's signature heroines—boneless hands, wide eyes, starched hair. In works such as Drowning Girl (1963), give him credit for editing the most ludicrous interior monologues—"I don't care! I'd rather sink than call Brad for help!"—into pain-free existentialism.

A half-century has blunted none of the aesthetic jolt of Rauschenberg's Pop-presaging combines or Warhol's best Disaster canvases, and another 50 years from now we'll still be creeped out by Takashi Murakami's immaculately rendered anime mutants and marvel at the mordant reverberations of Ed Ruscha's missing-text paintings. But despite acres of canvas on museum walls, Lichtenstein's inoffensive achievement works best when his pallid wit is pared down to a scale ironically close to the originals he pilfered. Admit it—you've got a Lichtenstein postcard on your refrigerator.

Sorry, hot shot.
Photograph by Olga Generalova; prop styling by Danielle Hyland
Sorry, hot shot.

I know I do.

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