Lichtenstein ruminates on abstraction in his comic-book look at Van Doesburg

American artist Roy Lichtenstein called his style "mock insensitivity." He based it overtly on the cheap printing processes and oversimplified artwork of comic books. But his intention was still to make "art." This involved a kind of serious humor, and never more so than when he translated other artists' "typical" work into his own cartoonish vision.

Picasso, C├ęzanne, and Gilbert Stuart, were all "Lichtensteined." So were the "modernity" of Art Deco and the impassioned brushstrokes of Abstract Expressionism. Likewise the abstract, geometrical verticals, horizontals, and restricted palette of the Dutch "De Stijl" ("the style") artists Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg.

It is Van Doesburg who is parodied in this triptych by Lichtenstein. On view at The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D,C., until July 24, they are part of a group of 13 drawings recently donated to the gallery by Lichtenstein's family in memory of art collector Jane Meyerhoff.

Around 1917, Van Doesburg painted a series of four drawings and paintings showing the stages of development from a realistic rendering of a cow to an abstraction of rectangles. According to the artist's vigorously promoted credo, the final abstraction was meant to arrive at the essence of the subject.

In the process, realistic resemblance was logically removed. A painting might then become completely self-sufficient - an icon constructed solely of the means by which paintings are made. To Van Doesburg, an abstract image involved relationships of color, shape, and form, as well as contrasts and tensions. These elements, however, no longer served a descriptive function.

Lichtenstein's fascination with comic strips fitted neatly with Van Doesburg's stages of "going abstract." Lichtenstein made use of the characteristic procession of comic-book frames to ironically question Van Doesburg's impassioned belief in the nature and power of abstraction.

Lichtenstein once noted in an interview that the comic-book style was itself a kind of abstraction. He explained by describing how, in a cartoon image of a frankfurter, "the form becomes a purely decorative abstract object." But then he added that, nevertheless, everyone still instantly recognizes this abstraction as a frankfurter.

It is not certain that Van Doesburg's final abstraction in his cow series is recognizable as a cow. And in Lichtenstein's parody, the point is driven home. His final frame, at first sight, bears no relationship at all to the original bovine. And yet, when one looks harder, the proportions of the cow can still be discerned in the crisscross of shapes.

For all his disarming visual wit and his assumption of a popular insensitivity to the obscure subtleties of "high art," Lichtenstein's work shows he was preoccupied by the interplay of "abstraction" and "reality."

Jack Cowart in his study of Lichtenstein's art from 1970 to 1980, calls the cow triptych "a wonderful perceptual joke" because the initial cow image is just as "abstract" as the final abstract image.

Maybe art has always been abstract after all.

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