American Indian Theme Roy Lichtenstein
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Born 1923 in New York City, Roy Lichtenstein’s iconic comic strip paintings have become synonymous with the Pop Art movement of the 1960s. Creating up until the time of his death in 1997, Lichtenstein experimented with a broad range of styles and themes. His engagement with American Indian art spans two main periods of his career, constituted by his pre-pop oeuvre of the 1950s and his 1980s American Indian series.
Growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Lichtenstein was a frequent visitor of the American Museum of Natural History. He showed particular interest in the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians from a young age. It wasn’t before the early 1950s, however, that he decided to expand on this fascination further, through his art. The first works from that period focused on reproducing cliched images from American history books romanticising Native American heritage. Employing a somewhat abstract, and at times even Cubist style, he revised the tribal myths and symbols he came upon in the form of large scale paintings.
Lichtenstein’s second encounter with traditional American Indian imagery commenced in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This time, the artist decided to treat indigenous art and design more in line with his signature Pop approach. In his American Indian Theme series, Lichtenstein primarily reshuffled elements appropriated from three dimensional everyday objects attributed to Native Americans. A broad variety of influencing source materials can be identified in this series, such as totems, textiles, beadwork, quillwork, ceramics and baskets. He reworked these into flat planes and geometric surrealist compositions. Lichtenstein’s parodic and compact forms in American Indian series strive for a multicoloured, yet minimalist presence.
It is important to note that the artist created this later series while living in Southampton, Long Island, residing near the Shinnecock Indian reservation. It is also no coincidence that Lichtenstein's revision of American Indian subject matter recurred roughly around the emergence of Native American activism. Lichtenstein applied appropriation as a tool to highlight the truth about Native identity. He aimed to contrast society’s prejudiced view of the indigenous against the actuality of their living situations. His purpose was to spark a dialogue around cultural misrepresentation.
The prints in Lichtenstein’s American Indian Theme series constitute a group of brightly coloured, hard-edged works on paper. The artist utilised two main relief techniques in the series, in order to evoke details and shadows. The sharp tonal contrasts present in one edition were achieved through a traditional woodcut carving process. This technique yielded robust indentations and distinct depth. Other prints in the series employ a particular etching technique referred to as intaglio. Rather than using wood as its base, the images in that edition have been carefully engraved onto a metallic surface. Aquatint was applied in conjunction with the etching, producing areas of tone and texture rather than definite outlines.
Lichtenstein’s revision of historical sources in the American Indian Theme series is also a revision of his own artistic past. Expanding the core of the American Indian paintings he executed in the 1950s, he allows his own characteristic visual vocabulary to take the lead. All tribal designs are mixed together to highlight clichés about Native Americans, therefore the artist renders the decorative indigenous motifs into simplified cartoon versions of themselves. Ultimately, he enables these abstracted forms to communicate their own narratives and relay stories of Native American heritage.
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