“Roy Lichtenstein: Between Sea and Sky” at Guild Hall in East Hampton, New York, celebrates in 31 works a subject that was dear to the Pop artist. Associated with romance- and war-themed comic book imagery that he began painting in 1961, Lichtenstein, within two years, was also executing seascapes of ravishing sunrises and sunsets. Because he continued to introduce other bodies of water and land masses, including rivers, lakes, bays, ponds with water lilies, and Chinese mountains, into his art over the course of the five decades of his career, these pictures occupy his largest body of paintings, drawings, prints, and other types of multiples.
Yet, Lichtenstein was not to the landscape born. He was a city boy raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. His experience of serene blue skies, billowing clouds, leafy trees, calm lakes, and rolling hills came predominantly from visits to Central Park, dioramas at the Museum of Natural History, and Hollywood movies. Although he began taking art classes in 1937 as a 14-year-old, the future Pop pioneer primarily made watercolors of still lifes and models. Even when attending the Art Students League a few years later, he mostly painted from the model and studied anatomical drawing and Renaissance techniques. Pastoral subjects were not yet on his menu.
That changed after college in Ohio, service in Europe during World War II, and teaching stints at the State University of New York at Oswego and at Douglass College in New Brunswick, New Jersey. More relevantly, before he succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 73 in 1997, the artist spent parts of his last 30 years on the East End.
Being a stone’s throw from award-winning beaches, Guild Hall is a perfect setting for this show. While there are sunsets and sunrises in the South gallery executed with the artist’s signature Ben Day dots and primary colors, many works in this space have a more experimental nature. Some, once lit by motorized lamps, feature a moiré-patterned, psychedelically colored substance known as Rowlux that the artist used to suggest sea and sky. The largest group of these to be seen together in ages, they belong to an idea that he never developed further.
Also on display in this space were other unusual works from the 1960s: a seashore painted with oil and magna on Plexiglas, two porcelain enamel on steel pieces with perforated dots, and a felt banner that serves as the cover of the excellent exhibition catalogue. A wall-sized, six-panel mini-billboard recently reconstructed by a former assistant from an original collaged drawing (also on view) dominates this gallery. A black and white sunset that’s as compelling as any executed in color, it practically steals the show with its intense contrasting tones, elements depicted in pitch perfect scale, and majestic size.
While Andy Warhol was painting car crashes and electric chairs, Lichtenstein more optimistically conceived sunsets that were always followed by tomorrow’s sunrises.
The semi-abstract, semi-representational landscapes in the North gallery are among Lichtenstein’s most imaginative works. The artist had already executed skies that call to mind Mark Rothko’s stacked rectangles as well as Kenneth Noland’s broad stripes. Then, in 1981, he began painting gigantic brushstrokes that evoke clouds, waves, reflections on water, even wind. Those with sailboats (and works with small shacks, not on view) seem to be riffs on Hans Hofmann’s sketchy views of Provincetown, Massachusetts, with Lichtenstein’s bold brushstrokes replacing the legendary art teacher’s push-pull rectangles.
Also on display in this space are a group of screen-print multiples inspired by Monet’s lily pond in Giverny, which opened to the public in 1980. Lichtenstein presented the flowers, their Pac Man-like pads, the water, and its reflections in his series of views as verticals. Ben Day dots as well as diagonal lines that the painter later used just as much animate these works. And there are also enticing, meandering passages whose bare, polished stainless steel sparkles as ceiling lights shine on them.
Just past this gallery, there’s a space housing another unusual work from Lichtenstein’s oeuvre: a two-screen film installation that Whitney curator Chrissie Iles described in a catalogue essay for the artist’s 2012 traveling retrospective as “a mesmerizing hybrid of painting, billboard, comic strip, cartoon, and kinetic spectacle.” Originally conceived for the legendary Art and Technology show held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1971, it took five years to restore. Two different bodies of moving water—filmed from a beach in nearby Southampton—occupy the screen’s bottoms, which are topped, on the left, by large blue dots on a white field, and, on the right, by a blue sky with a seagull frozen in flight. While Warhol again comes to mind, Lichtenstein, in collaboration with Universal Film Studios, drew other conclusions about how to work with film. As the tops and bottoms rock back and forth, it’s an audacious spin on the concept of moving pictures.
“Roy Lichtenstein: Between Sea and Sky,” which runs through October 12, features only a fraction of the artist’s work in this genre. But since many others are on view in museum collections around the world, the sun never sets on Lichtenstein’s seascapes and landscapes.