Simplicity and Complexity: Roy Lichtenstein’s “Stepping Out”

From the first time I saw Roy Lichtenstein’s 1978 painting “Stepping Out”, I was moved by how much human emotion is conveyed by the most primary of colors and simplest of forms. I believe that what the artist does in this work affirms the question about simplicity and complexity Eli Siegel asks in “Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?”

“Is there a simplicity in all art, a deep naivete, an immediate self-containedness, accompanied perhaps by fresh directness or startling economy?–and is there that, so rich it cannot be summed up; something subterranean and intricate counteracting and completing simplicity, the teasing complexity of reality meditated on?”

Lichtenstein definitely accents “fresh directness” and “startling economy.” This very large painting, it is seven feet high, nearly six feet wide, consists of strong, bright colors with definite lines and forms. There are essentially five colors–the primary ones–red, blue and yellow, plus black and white. They are flat and unmodulated and on their own do not give a feeling of depth or texture. And, yet, with all this simplicity, I think the complexity of love is here–the hope and pain, closeness and distance that men and women have felt for centuries.

I believe this work is a criticism of how a man has often wanted to see a woman as simple, as just a “pretty face”, without too much substance, and how a woman may accommodate herself to this unjust, contemptuous way of seeing her.   All we see of the woman are features and clothes—wavy blonde hair in a barrette, one blue eye, vivid red lips and yellow scarf and coat. Where her head should be is a mirror with no reflection in it. But unlike most men, Lichtenstein uses these features to show that beneath a bright, seemingly vapid surface, there is the depth and complexity of a person. Her vertical eye is surprising and critical. Her unsmiling lips are closed, but they are dual; solid red on top, complex red dots on the bottom. And the duality, the mystery is right on top, on the surface, not hidden.

Lichtenstein is both critical of and compassionate towards the man. He shows him, with his sad Leger face and a yellow film over his eyes, as uncomprehending and far away from the woman even as he is so close to her. The man is almost presenting her as an ornament; yet she is part of him. She completes his shape but not quite. She is the same and different. But he doesn’t see her, who she is. She is on the other side of the mirror that forms her face.

In an Aesthetic Realism class, Mr. Siegel once asked me questions that I think have very much to do with one of the subject of this work: how men have made the mistake of seeing women as too superficial at one time, and too confusing at another. He asked me:

ES: Do you think women should be simple?

SW: I guess I do.

And he continued with humor:

ES: The more you know of women, the more you’ll find them baffling—so the prospects are not so good. Do you want to feel you’re the only complex person?

These questions and others I’ve heard have made for a great change in me. Where once I was shallow about women, I now see and honor their depths much more. This in turn had made my own life and emotions so much deeper and richer.

While the man and woman seem so far away from each other—the sharp diagonal line in the middle accents this–the artist also shows their deep relation to each other in a way that has tenderness, even humor. Their lips have a similar outline but hers are red and have those dots while his are solid black and white, and the line that separates her upper and lower lip is curved; his is straight. The outline of her lower lip almost meets and has the same lovely shape as his jawline and chin. Both their faces have red Benday dots that Lichtenstein is so famous for that become more intense as their faces meet.

One of the deepest parts of this picture is the way her scarf both hugs herself and also reaches out to him, touching his striped blue tie, in a manner that is both playful and yearning, and perhaps even a little desperate. Do these two directions of her scarf stand for the fight that I learned is in every person, including centrally as to love–between wanting to love only ourselves and longing to care deeply for another person? I think so.

Lichtenstein sees deep meaning in the complexities of a situation that many people use to be cynical about love. Through my study of Aesthetic Realism, I came to see that I used the chilly distance I saw between my parents to have contempt–for them, all people, and the world itself. My scorn, my feeling that humanity was deeply messy, made it impossible for me to see people the way Lichtenstein did here–with largeness, respect and compassion. When I learned a true way of seeing the world and people, the art way, my life changed beautifully.

Once, I never would have seen that this painting, complex and yet so forthright in its composition, could be a means for me to see all people more deeply. I thank Eli Siegel for enabling me to care for both art and life and for showing the deep relation between the two.