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The Butler Institute of American Art

Gary Lichtenstein: Painter and Master Printer

March 19-June 11, 2023

Renowned painter Gary Lichtenstein demonstrates true abstract expressionism via his spectacular use of color. His paintings, more than 200 oil-based works to date, exhibit mastery of the properties of light absorption and reflection, specifically with regard to the visual impact of color. Inspired by artists such as Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler, Lichtenstein creates canvases which have frequently been described as ethereal, and he has been praised as one who manages to capture a “sense of no-self…” In fact, the composition of Lichtenstein’s work has been referred to as atmospheric... “evocative of natural forms and phenomena.” In addition, Lichtenstein has collaborated with over one hundred artists during the course of his forty-five year career.

Legendary rock & roll poster artist Bob Fried was one of Lichtenstein’s earliest influences and also one of his greatest. A pioneer of silkscreen production, Fried was among the first to use the medium to produce original works of art; his psychedelic, 1960s poster art was embraced by rock bands such as Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, Santana, Genesis and Steppenwolf. By the time he met Lichtenstein, Fried had moved away from the rock art genre and was focused exclusively on the creation of original silkscreen prints and sculpture. Together, Fried and Lichtenstein dove into what was, at the time, relatively new territory: embracing the unique method of painting through silk – effectively taking an image apart and putting it back together again, screen by screen, color by color, layer by layer. During their 2 ½ year collaboration, the artists produced original artwork that would grace the highly anticipated Baha Exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1975. Fried’s untimely death, however, two days before the opening of the exhibition, took the San Francisco art world by surprise. It also inspired the launch, three years later, of SOMA Fine Art, Lichtenstein’s first entrepreneurial venture.

Throughout his career, Lichtenstein has worked with a wide variety of artists, each of whom has approached the medium of silkscreen with unique and specific intentions. Every project produced in Lichtenstein’s studio, including his own, tells a different story. This comprehensive exhibition is a fascinating showcase of the infinite possibilities inspired by the medium of silkscreen printing. Featured artists include Cey Adams, Janette Beckman, Robert Cottingham, Crash, Daze, Al Diaz, Shepard Fairey, Danielle Frankenthal, Futura, Elizabeth Gregory, Bob Gruen, Charles Hinman, Robert Indiana, Indie184, Alfred Leslie, Eric Orr, Robert Scott, Jessica Stockholder, Vincent Valdez and more.

Lichtenstein’s work has been shown and collected by, among others, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian, the Chicago Art Institute, the Butler Institute of American Art and the College of Art & Architecture at the University of Tennessee. The Fried screen print collection can be found at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Whitney Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco.

“Gary Lichtenstein, contemporary artist and master printmaker has given much to the American art world. Working closely with enormously inventive Avant-garde painters, sculptors and printmakers, he has advanced the visual arts in dramatic ways. His own creations represent continuous explorations and his genius for adding so much visual power to the creative work of colleagues fills a major gap. The Butler exhibition includes both his work and the work of client artists and colleagues. When Mr. Joseph Butler envisioned his museum of American art in 1919, he surely was wanting to show American contemporary art at its best. He would have welcomed Gary Lichtenstein to his roster of artists.”

- Dr. Louis Zona, Director of The Butler Institute of American Art

“The artworld, which is generally thought of as being broad-minded, can be remarkably unaccepting of those who function in more than one capacity. For instance, can you be equally good at both making art and assisting others in its production? Over the years I’ve heard it said (usually in whispers) that he or she should “stay in their lane” rather than embrace multiple creative pathways. But in my experience, it is often those who can keep several balls in the air at a given time who are the real geniuses among us. A case in point is Gary Lichtenstein, who having been trained as a painter, entered the world of screen printing as a young man, subsequently excelling in both. One issue often affecting artistic polymaths (and there are many!) is the tendency to assume a sotto voce about one’s passion as an artist when dealing with the more practical sides of cultural production. This exhibition will hopefully put to rest any questioning of Lichtenstein’s ability as a talented painter, which has often been eclipsed by his outstanding talent as a master screen printer.

I would argue that it is exactly Lichtenstein’s endeavors as a painter that has made him so good in the print studio when working with other artists. If you are engaged with color on a deeply personal level (the way good painters are) then that relative subjectivity will naturally carry over into the objective world of artistic problem solving. When I first met the artist in 2007, he was working on a suite of prints with the realist painter Robert Cottingham. I was astonished to learn that some of the prints had as many as 36 separate screens in the service of getting the image “right,” a move that was more governed by Lichtenstein’s deep knowledge of color and composition than the desires of Cottingham himself. This story also illustrates Lichtenstein’s patience which, on a practical level, leads to the printing process being more of an adventure punctuated by frolicking detours than a series of premeditated tasks. Time working on a project with an artist in Lichtenstein’s studio is not governed by the clock, but by the exciting possibilities that unfold while making a print. I know of Lichtenstein losing interest in working with an artist because what the individual wanted was too basic and mechanical and didn’t involve enough creativity to entertain his passions.

Not enough has been written about Gary’s personal work as a painter and printmaker. The work, which can be categorized as “Color Field” has been informed by diverse influences, many of them not readily apparent to the casual viewer. One inescapable fact is despite Gary’s roots on the East Coast his artistic outlook has really been tempered by his thirty years in California, and by the Bay area in particular. Working with fabled San Francisco screen printer Robert Fried while still a student at the San Francisco Art Institute had a lingering effect on Lichtenstein as a painter, but not in the ways one would expect. Fried, who made iconic posters for the 1960’s San Francisco counterculture, introduced Lichtenstein to the “rainbow roll” where multiple colors applied to the screen are merged by the squeegee into a gradated field that resembles a sunset or the lines of a spectrum. Often used as a background for major compositional elements in screen printing, Lichtenstein embraced it as a thingin-itself, an approach which he subsequently transcribed into his atmospheric paintings. But there is perhaps a deeper connection with Californian art of the 1960s and 70s in the artist’s work. “Light and Space” is the term applied to a group of loosely affiliated artists in Southern California beginning in the 1960s. Characterized by a fundamental interest in perceptual phenomenon, much of their work was grounded in the basic act of seeing. Subsequently described as “Primary Atmospheres” by the California-based critic Dave Hickey, the movement’s influence continues to reverberate into our present moment. I realize that San Francisco is over 300 miles north of L.A., but one can easily argue that creatively S.F.’s spirit has been closer to SoCal than to New York, and “primary atmospheres” is a phrase that clearly can be applied to Lichtenstein’s current paintings and prints that revel–and delight–in both light and space. Lichtenstein is not a painter and master printer, but rather a master painter and master printer.”

- Richard Klein, Former Exhibitions Director at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum

The Butler Institute of American Art, founded in 1919 is an accredited, non-profit art museum that provides art classes, tours, events and world-class exhibitions. Admittance is free to the public. For further information contact: Susan Carfano 234-228-8588


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