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Critical Review

Lichtenstein first started photographing architectural facades around Lower Manhattan in 1971, which we see reproduced in his Entablature series. The artist first started photographing architectural facades and ornamental motifs around Lower Manhattan in 1971.

He zeroed in on a specific type of architectural superstructure made out of a series of mouldings. Inspired by Classic Greek architecture, these elements are referred to as ‘cornice’, ‘frieze’ and ‘architrave’. All three decorative components are usually found atop architectural columns and bear the collective label of ‘entablature’.

These monumental architectural elements provided the artist with ready-made designs, similar to the comic strip and advertisement sources he applied in other artistic endeavours. The artist manufactured two series of paintings around the topic of entablature. The first series of paintings were purely black and white, while the second ones were supplied with colours, culminating in the production of eleven technologically advanced prints in 1976.

Lichtenstein’s Entablatures embrace his persistent artistic concern with abstraction, while also adding a new perspective on the mass replication of cultural and institutional symbols. The artist explored these themes in his prominent Haystack series, Bulls series, and Cathedral series, among others.

Lichtenstein’s Entablature prints employ polished screen printed and lithographed areas. Handcrafted stencils are also utilised here, combined with machine made glossy and matte metal foil elements. The resulting works offer unusual colour schemes and lavish finishes, marking the peak of material experimentation and technical complexity in the artist’s career.

The Entablature prints are elongated and thin, drawing a physical analogy to the original architectural features they were predicated on. The horizontal flow of the ornamentation is also suggestive of such a parallel, alluding to an uninterrupted continuation of the pattern beyond the printed sheet.

Why is the Entablature series important?

The physical characteristics of the architectural reliefs appealed to the artist on account of their machine-made components. Moreover, Lichtenstein’s artistic take on these elements reflects how his chosen designs are distinctly industrialised American imitations of classical architecture. Based on historical sources, mainly of Greco-Roman and French Beaux-Arts descent, the facade ornaments selected by the artist are themselves appropriations. Lichtenstein’s Entablatures use these pointedly copied forms as their point of departure, rather than seeking out the origins of the reliefs.

Isolating various culturally coded symbols found on buildings, Lichtenstein’s Entablatures are complete portraits depicting partial subjects. He presents his chosen motifs in a richly textured, yet reductive and repetitive manner, commenting on architecture’s historical preference of uniformity.

By emphasising the objecthood of the reliefs, Lichtenstein also directs criticism at Minimalism’s push for impassive artistic expression. Additionally, the Entablatures ridicule colour field painting’s use of flat planes of single colour, as a means to access spiritual transcendence.

Multilayered in its formal and conceptual references, the Entablature series offers a look at the intersection of art of architecture. Moreover, the prints explore how everyday visuals are transformed into emblems of power. Lichtenstein equates the replicated and standardised facade features with the doctrines governing his own artistic creation.

Once again taking pre-existing signs as his subject matter, the Entablatures demonstrate that architecture, much like art, borrows from the past with the intention of enforcing the order of the present. Lichtenstein exposes the false iconicity of these grand motifs situated all around society, reflecting on the imperialist sentiments saturating 20th century American architecture.

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