Image: Roy Lichtenstein, Little Landscape, 1979, Oil and Magna on Canvas, © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
Art Review | 'Roy Lichtenstein'
A Pop Artist's Fascination With the First Americans [excerpts]
By GRACE GLUECK
Published: December 23, 2005
Can there possibly be anything about the work of Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) that isn't already well known? Well, yes: his interest in the people of the Old West, particularly American Indians, which led him to incorporate their motifs in his work.
That interest is explored in an engaging show at the Montclair Art Museum, "Roy Lichtenstein: American Indian Encounters," which puts a group of Indian-themed Lichtensteins together with Indian artifacts from the museum's own holdings and a few of the books from the artist's own collection that helped inspire him. The show was assembled by Gail Stavitsky, the museum's chief curator, and Twig Johnson, its curator of Native American Art, in conjunction with the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
Lichtenstein's engagement with American Indian art is reflected in two periods of his career: his earliest work, and his Surrealist series of the late 1970's. The works on view range from a Cubist-oriented early canvas, "The Death of Jane McCrea" (1951), based on the 19th-century painting by John Vanderlyn about a young bride scalped by Indians, to "Amerind Figure" (1981), a wittily stylized life-size sculpture that's a kind of streamlined totem pole in black-patinated bronze. They include a stunning wool tapestry, "Amerind Landscape"(1979), a sophisticated composition with the design pizazz of Lichtenstein's style in full bloom.[...]
The second phase of Lichtenstein's Indian-inspired work occurred from 1979 to 1981, long after he had established his familiar Pop style, as part of a lengthy series of "art about art" works that included Surrealism. The "Indian" group of bright, hard-edged paintings, works on paper and the above-mentioned sculpture took its themes, like the other parts of the series, from contemporary art and other sources, including books on American Indian design from Lichtenstein's small library.
In their wall text, the curators point out that Lichtenstein's return to Indian subject matter coincided with the growth of Native American activism. Lichtenstein later said that the works were "the cliché idea" of Indian, a mix of every kind of Indian design from Northwest to Plains to Pueblo: "Anything that I could think of that was 'Indian' got into them."
"Face and Feather" (1979), the most abstract painting of the group, incorporates North and South American Indian symbols: a bright yellow sawtooth face that takes up half the painting (a very modern feather occupies the other half) has a black and white North American Indian symbol for an eye; the rectangular mouth inlaid with small geometric figures is a close copy of a mouth design for a mythical animal found on pottery from the Peruvian site of Tiahuanaco. It was copied from a book Lichtenstein owned on ancient art of the Andes.
A big, complex pastiche titled "Indian Composition" (1979) mixes Cubist and Surrealist imagery (woodgraining again) with Indian themes. Geometrically abstracted male and female figures appear at the left and right of the canvas, but they include eye and mouth motifs from Peruvian textiles and ceramics, hatched lines from Southwestern pottery, lightning-like zigzags, crosses symbolizing the four directions and bear paw designs. It's a knockout. [read full article...]