In February 1969, at the invitation of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Roy Lichtenstein spent two weeks at Universal Studios participating in the museum’s Art and Technology program. Although Lichtenstein had planned on producing 15 short films, a three-screen installation—made with New York-based independent filmmaker Joel Freedman—turned out to be the artist’s only venture into the medium. The Whitney Museum has lovingly restored the original 35mm prints and is now, for the first time, showing the three films together in their intended format. (LACMA presented a 16mm version in 1971.) Deceptively simple, Three Landscapes, on view through Feb. 12, plunks itself slyly between Pop painting and Warholian nothing-seems-to-happen filmmaking. The installation includes noisily whirring projectors placed behind the screens and softly lighted so that we are well aware of their existence.
All the films are one-minute loops, and each gives us a static sky and a moving sea, with an assertive comic-book-style black line separating the two sectors of each screen. The left screen features an uninflected field of fat cobalt-blue benday dots standing in for the sky, set atop a shot of rippling water speckled with yellow and orange-pink highlights. The center screen shows a still of thick puffy clouds interspersed with patches of gray-blue sky, hovering above a live-action aquarium scene complete with twitchy tropical fish and a big sprig of vegetation. The image on the right is a blank field of turquoise with a bleached-out photo of a white gull collaged onto it, set over a wide-angled view of a calm ocean sparkling in the golden sun. To complicate matters, each of the images rocks hypnotically, the black central line accentuating the movement.
The three screens are never in sync, and no matter how much you would like to resolve the arrangement, you cannot; neither can you keep your attention focused on one screen for any length of time without glimpsing at the other two. The color saturation changes both from screen to screen and between sky and sea in each individual film, and the range of blues seems chosen for maximum capacity to jar: the tones are just close enough to set your teeth on edge. Lichtenstein apparently wanted to shake things up conceptually and perceptually, moving between the abstract and the referential in a manner as calculated as the mix of close-up, medium-range and long shots.
Around the time he made these films, Lichtenstein, already successful and increasingly confident of his abilities, was able to push past his signature comic-book images to explore new approaches. Evidence of this was recently on view at Paula Cooper Gallery, which presented a stunning selection of the artist’s “Entablature” paintings (1971–76). These long, banded, horizontal images of Greco-Roman ornamentation are some of Lichtenstein’s most abstract works. Challenging the Minimalist orthodoxies of the day with subtlety and humor, these paintings, like the Whitney’s Three Landscapes installation, show us a side of the diversely inventive artist that has not been seen in many years.
Photo: Still from Roy Lichtenstein’s Three Landscapes, 1970–71, three-screen film installation, one-minute loop; at the Whitney.