However commonplace today, gallery video or film installations were once seen as blatantly vanguard—evidence of art’s forward march beyond the portable, static object. A bit of this history is excavated at the Whitney with the belated local premiere of painter Roy Lichtenstein’s sole excursion into motion pictures, the 1969 installation Three Landscapes.
The alienated tropical splendor of Lichtenstein’s projected triptych is both future-oriented and decadent; the piece came out of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s multimedia Art and Technology project, which allowed him to spend two weeks in residence at Universal Studios in Hollywood. Having absorbed some technical lore and perhaps expanded his notion of “pop,” Lichtenstein (or rather his assistant, documentary filmmaker Joel Freedman) shot some beach and sea footage at the east end of Long Island, which would be integrated into his installation as one-minute loops. Like his earlier mechanized landscapes, which the artist fashioned from reflective plastic and motorized electric lights, Lichtenstein’s three celluloid seascapes are blatantly schematic—each bisected by a heavy black horizon gently tilting up and down as though viewed from a boat—and deliberately mystifying. The projection apparatus is somewhat concealed so that the installation appears as three autonomous moving pictures.
The first landscape puts a Benday Dot sky over a filmed close-up of the ocean surface, the middle one matches the sky with footage of tropical fish, and the third image (previously exhibited as Sunset Water With Suspended Seagull) places a photo-collaged sky (with a frozen bird) over a long shot of the ocean. The effect of the rocking horizon is hypnotic and mildly nauseating—and not just because the movement could induce seasickness. Ethereal yet visceral, frugal but posh, an authentic fake and a triumphantly constructed vista, Three Landscapes is a particular essence of studio filmmaking—it almost could have been made for some nouveau mogul’s living room.