Seeing The Big Picture

Roy Lichtenstein: Landscapes in the Chinese Style at the Museum of Fine Arts through July 6

It would be easy to argue that Roy Lichtenstein has never made an original image. Rather he has made images of images for 35 years, whether literal copies of comic book cells or appropriations of Monet and Pollock, all executed in his signature Benday dots. Yet although one might think this persistent stylistic vision would eventually grow boring, his new Landscapes in the Chinese Style prove otherwise.

Lichtenstein is a master of the economic image. During World War II, he made maps from aerial photographs, a job that required a kind of graphic distillation. This visual training has served him well, especially in his many paintings that have tersely targeted various artistic styles, including Impressionism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism and now his new Chinese landscapes. These paintings exemplify visual frugality and can be read almost as mathematical equations, the sum of two disparate styles based on the following questions. First, how little information is required to make a Chinese landscape? And second, how little information is required to make a Lichtenstein?

For the answers, we need only turn to any of the exhibition's 17 striking canvases, where tiny scholars and fishing boats cower under misty, mountains. In Yellow Cliffs, three Benday dot cliff faces drop steeply from the painting's upper left corner. At the bottom, Lichtenstein's fluid, black contour describes an undulating boulder. This black outline, originally taken from comic books, contains a small patch of red parallel lines, which were used to denote shading in the half-tone prints of newspapers and magazines.

To this repertoire of three signature stylistic elements, Lichtenstein adds a new technique, sponge-painting, used for the gently sloping tree in Yellow Cliffs. The lack of control inherent in painting with a sponge risks undermining the impossibly clean finish that has long been a hall-mark of Lichtenstein's canvases. Yet on closer look, the organic matter seems just as mechanical, as if it had been painted with a commercial "do it yourself" home decorating kit.

In addition to these "organic" touches, no matter how sarcastic, Lichtenstein isolates atmosphere and ambiguous depth as two of the most salient characteristics of Chinese paintings. To capture these two linked qualities, Lichtenstein uses modulated dot screens which fade from larger, tightly-spaced dots to smaller, more thinly-spaced ones. Not since his series of mirrors executed in the '70s has Lichtenstein so deftly manipulated his most recognizable mark.


In Landscape with Philosopher, jagged peaks climb to over nine feet, as Lichtenstein vertically stacks over 10 different dot screens. The most captivating moments are the points where the screens overlap, intersect or dissolve into one another. Here Lichtenstein again demonstrates his masterful visual economy, using the exact same dots to signify mist, mountain or perhaps both at the same time. This ambiguity leads to a spatial confusion and mystery as convincing and sophisticated as any of the real Song Dynasty paintings hanging in the galleries upstairs.

Unlike the Chinese paintings upstairs, however, several of Lichtenstein's canvases become overwhelmed by these tangles of shifting dot screens. In these cases, the dots seem to be vibrating, creating an effect more dizzying then restful.

Not always a liability, this frenetic motion sometimes creates a brilliant effect as in Landscape with Boat. Easily the most abstract and compositionally daring painting in the show, Landscape with Boat looks like a jagged collision of two blue dot screens leaving a gigantic gash across the canvas. Only upon closer inspection do we notice the prow of a tiny red boat jutting in from the lower left-hand edge of the painting. This careful cropping coupled with a horizonless point of view emphasizes the vast and perhaps overwhelming aspect of nature often captured in actual Chinese painting.

The extremely large scale of Lichtenstein's paintings furthers this effect. Their expansive area inscribes the viewer in a spatial relationship that mirrors the tiny scale of the figures in the Chinese paintings' infinite landscapes. Just as the miniature men are almost lost within the Song paintings, we are literally dwarfed by the immense scale of Lichtenstein's work and can never really hold the entire image in our visual field. Only by backing up as far as the gallery allows can we get a good look at the whole composition, but Lichtenstein jokes that we can never really possess nature.

By presenting a variety of preliminary sketches and collages, MFA curator Barbara Stern Shapiro provides important insight into Lichtenstein's working process. She also includes four landscape monotypes by Degas, which Lichtenstein credits as the initial inspiration for his atmospheric landscapes. However, a formal comparison between Degas' prints and Lichtenstein's paintings yields few enlightening similarities, perhaps suggesting that artistic inspiration, like Chinese landscapes, is better left veiled in mystery.