In the late 19th century, the American illustrator and publisher Benjamin Day developed a cost-effective printing technique that used dots in different densities to reproduce images on a mass scale. This process, named after its inventor, matured over the next century and was utilised to print newspapers, advertisements, and pulp comic books in the 1950s and 60s. Sigmar Polke (Germany, 19412010), Roy Lichtenstein (United States, 19231997), and Gerald Laing (United Kingdom, 19362011) along with the rest of the worlddevoured this imagery daily, and chose to reconfigure it in their works.
On view at Lévy Gorvy
s London location, Source and Stimul us: Polke, Lichtenstein, Laing is an exhibition devoted to the Ben-Day dot. Featuring exceptional works by the trio of legendary artists, this is the first exhibition to connect them on the basis of their manipulation of the dot, transforming imagery from the commercial sphere into fine art. The exhibition, which relaunches Lévy Gorvys newly remodelled Old Bond Street gallery, will run through 21 April.
Taking its title from Laings 1964 exhibition at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, Source and Stimulus highlights certain themes that recur in the works of all three artists, including the Space Race, sexual liberation, mass consumerism, and politics. This transatlantic consideration of the 1960s Pop Art movement is both technical and thematic, affirming the enduring relevance of the visual vocabulary they created, in a time likewise shaped by sensationalism in the mass media.
In conjunction with the exhibition, Lévy Gorvy will publish a fully illustrated hardbound catalogue, featuring contributions by renowned Pop Art experts Marco Livingstone and David E. Brauer.
By mimicking printing technology, Polke, Lichtenstein and Laing signalled a return to representation after Abstract Expressionism that was simultaneously rooted in abstraction. While each existed in a specific socio-political milieu and used different terminology to describe their practice Polke manipulated Rasterbild dots in Germany while Laing toyed with half-tone dots in the United Kingdom, and Lichtenstein maintained the Ben-Day dot in Americathey were united in the quest to create images of their time. Turning clichés into icons and ephemera into art, these images were not of their own invention but rather drawn from real sources and stereotypes in the world. Their subject matter ranged from the glamorous to the banal, encompassing astronauts, Hollywood stars, political leaders, commodities, and cartoons. As Polke declared in 1965: You can believe me or not: but I really do see the world around me in dots.
Source and Stimulus features a number of exceptional loans, including Polkes iconic and luminous Freundinnen ( Girlfriends ) (1965/1966) from the Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart. This is widely regarded as one of the artists most masterful Rasterbild paintings. Although the source material remains unknown, its all-over composition and expansive palette of colours set the dots in motion with striking acuity. Carefully cropped, Lichtensteins Little Aloha (1962), from The Sonnabend Collection Foundation, combines flat areas of colour with red dots, thick black lines, and strong silhouetted forms, epitomising the artists signature style in an alluring portrait. Two bikini-clad women by Laing, part of a larger series of ladies in swimming costumes, is on view for the first time since their initial presentation at Richard Feigen Gallery, Chicago, in 1965. Dramatically enlarged and painted in bold colours, Shout (1965) and Rain Check (1965) channel the optimistic atmosphere of the 1960s and, through their youthful demeanour and provocative poses, speak to the zeitgeist of sexual liberation.
International Pop: Origins
Lichtenstein was the first of the three artists to employ the dot in 1961, appropriating imagery from bubble gum wrappers and childrens books, incorporating cartoon characters such as Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse into his paintings. Shortly after Lichtenstein, Laing and Polke began using the Ben-Day dot in 1962 and 1963, respectively. Laing was inspired by the daring posters he saw pasted to the walls of the London Underground, transfixed by the dots and lines and cacophony of form and colour that comprised the billboards in Whitechapel Station. He would later meet Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol while visiting New York in 1963 and working in Robert Indianas studio. Polke was exposed to Pop Art through art journals, frequently circulated among his classmates at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, but tried to set himself apart from his American contemporaries. He created his own German Pop movement called Kapitalistischer Realismus (Capitalist Realism) that decried the banality of consumerism. In 1963, Polke staged an exhibition in a former butchers shop with fellow art students Konrad Lueg (later, Konrad Fischer), Manfred Kuttner and Gerhard Richter, entitled Leben mit Pop Ei ne Demonstration für den Kapitalistischen Realismus ( Living with Pop A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism ).
Space, Speed, Sex: Subjects & Approaches
While Lichtenstein and Laing transmitted the fervour of the American dream, rendering the heroes and pin-ups of a victorious postwar society in vibrant detail, Polke remained sceptical of the capitalist system, populating his paintings with empty interiors, discarded toys, and food in various states of consumption. He saw in the Rasterbild a system of social order that was standardized, divided, fragmented, rationed, grouped, specialized, and channelled this into paintings such as Puppe ( Doll ) (1965).
Lichtenstein, on the other hand, sought to underscore the objectness of Pop through his single-object paintings presented in their unbranded, un-fetishised form, exemplified by Bread and Jam (1963). In his earliest works from 1961, the dots were applied with a dog brush; he switched to a handmade metal stencil in 1962, then manufactured a metal screen in 1963 to maintain consistency as he enlisted the help of assistants. The Ben-Day dot had a mechanical appeal for Lichtenstein: as his application of the dots became more sophisticated and clinical, he was able to erase all trace of his hand. The exhibition features works that convey the artists compelling range of sources, from advertisements to art history, such as Modern Painting with Yellow Arc (1967), and track the evolution of this technique over the course of the 1960s.
By contrast, Laing painted his dots by hand in oil, and Polke dipped pencil erasers into household paint then pressed them, like stamps, against the surface. Despite the similarities in their systematic approaches, the visual results varied greatly between them. Still, the works share an illusory quality of motion, charged with an ambient vibration despite the fixed nature of their constructions. This is further emphasised by Lichtensteins use of onomatopoeia, with the energy of VIIP! (1962) frozen through representation.
In the starlets depicted by Laing, there is an erotic charge that echoes between surface and subject as the models shift between figuration and abstraction, their colour-blocked costumes in tension with bodies contoured through half-tones. In Astronaut II (1963) a jagged edge of triangles along the extreme of an astronauts helmet implies an outward pulsation, reflecting the nerves of the man himself or an alien moonscape, whilst the driver in C.T. Strokers (1964) sits statically engulfed by a flurry of fumes from his race car. Laings Lincoln Convertible (1964), on the other hand, is imbued with a sombre finitude, as the artist uses multi-coloured dots for the first (and last) time, to commemorate President John F. Kennedys assassination. Composed from amateur footage taken by Abraham Zapruder and subsequently published in Life magazine, Laings shaped-canvas painting highlights the international fascination with Americas cultural revolution and the ways in which it could shift the political landscape.