detail from Whaam! 1963 Tate © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012

Unpicking The Riddle

1st March 2013

Jill Glenn attempts to join up the dots at Tate Modern’s Roy Lichtenstein: A Restrospective

From the start (a roomful of 1960s ‘brushstrokes’) to the distant end, thirteen expansive rooms later, visitors are likely to find themselves in awe of both the organisational skills and the conceptual understanding of curators Sheena Wagstaff and James Rondeau. Their Roy Lichtenstein exhibition, some five years in the making, is as comprehensive a retrospective (the first since the painter’s death in 1997) as you could wish, and a fine example of cross-Atlantic co-operation and collaboration. It was phenomenally successful in Chicago, delivering the Art Institute its highest visitor figures for a decade; has also been seen in Washington and is going on to Paris. The Tate will be hoping to replicate Chicago’s popularity – and if the crush at the Press View is anything to go by, they are on to a winner. It is in their interests, of course, that Lichtenstein’s style – ‘pop art’ – is so immediately recognisable: the virile pilot heroes and the desolate heroines of his comic strip style paintings occupied him for only six or seven years – but everyone recognises them, and they have (in the public mind, at least) come to symbolise everything he did and stood for. And that’s fair enough, for they are at the centre of a continuum that the artist was still exploring and expanding in the year of his death. The Late Nudes of Room 11 and the Chinese Landscapes of Room 13 may be very different in content from the War/Romance pieces of Room 4, but they are clearly Lichtensteins, nevertheless… and that, says Sheena Wagstaff, is what this exhibition is all about: unpicking the riddle of what makes a Lichtenstein a Lichtenstein.

There is plenty to engage even the most casual of gallery-goers, although I venture that thirteen rooms of War and/or Romance would have been more than even the most committed of Lichtenstein aficionados could tolerate – so it’s as well that the output was constantly changing, even while the artist’s stylistic preoccupations remained pretty fixed. He got into dots pretty early in his career, and never fell out of love with their possibilities.

One of his first pieces of ‘pop art’ was Look, Mickey [1961], a jazzy, joky portrait of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in bright, primary colours, allegedly spurred into life by one of Lichtentein’s sons, with the words ‘I bet you can’t paint as good as that, eh, Dad?’ as he pointed to a cartoon strip in a comic book. It was a defining moment: the point at which the artist came into his own – and he was by then pushing 40; in the contemporary art world where painters find fame, if not fortune, at a generally younger age, it would make him positively geriatric. In reality, though, it gave him masses of experience and insight on which to draw.

Oh, Jeff…I Love You, Too…But… *

In the War/Romance ‘comic’ series that occupied him throughout the 1960s the introduction of narrative, both implicit and explicit, is both enriching and distracting. It’s easy, for example, to get caught up in the ‘story’ of We Rose Up Slowly…, the text of which continues ‘…as if we didn’t belong to the outside world any longer… like swimmers in a shadowy dream… who didn’t need to breathe…’ and not look at the piece itself. And maybe that is partly the point. The commodification of women, the intensely mediated world: these adjust and mediate our own responses. We know not what we look at. Everything is illusion, Lichtenstein is telling us. He took objects we know well – trash cans, aerosol sprays, magnifying glasses, tractor tyres – and meshed them with the tradition of painting. As source material he used everything from newspaper advertisements and mail order catalogues to museum posters and illustrated stories) and reinterpreted them – resketched, recomposed – to suit his own ends. He appropriated images which had no provenance, which bore a reductive relationship to a lost original, and rerendered them as art. He confounded the notion of the ready-made.

On first sight his style is harsh, full-on – he had, in fact, worked as an industrial designer and engineering draughtsman in Cleveland in his twenties – but he also produced pieces that are subtle, unexpectedly delicate, thoughtful. I like that they are so clean, so straightforward and unstraightforward at the same time. They bear looking into.

Throughout his career, he continued to innovate. He took the standard preoccupations of the painter – colour, form and line – and coalesced them into a style utterly his own. It is ironic that his work appears so regular and so mass-produced but was, in fact, executed entirely by hand. In the early days he made his own stencils by drilling holes through strips of aluminium, but the inking could be uneven, and the need for repositioning meant that there were telltale marks. He rapidly moved on to prefabricated Benday screens so that the holes were uniform. Later still, he used an assistant to apply the paint – still by hand, but subverting the idea of authorship and authenticity still further.

His preoccupation with art history is marvellously addressed in Room 7, which the curators have called Art About Art. This could, in fact, be the subtitle for the whole show, indeed for Lichtenstein’s whole career, given his interest in what art is and does and says and means. Although these quasi-derivative works are displayed all together here, James Rondeau is at pains to stress that they do not represent a single stage of his career; they were something that Lichtenstein did all the time: he was mining art history from the start of his career to the end. “It was in his DNA”. Roy Lichtenstein saw no difference, the curator asserts, between the reproduction of an old master and a bathroom catalogue; a Mondrian and a Mickey Mouse were the same. It’s very levelling, and not as cynical as it sounds; in fact it betrays Lichtenstein’s “innate optimism”. It’s not that the artists were the same, but that our understanding of them is.

The greatest influence on his career was Picasso, and he was always distilling down what he learned from the master, using it for his own analytical language. The works in Room 7, both those ‘after Picasso’ and others, are not entirely or simply parodic, though. They are more of a homage to other painters and an experiment in synthesising different styles and influences – so there are not only direct ‘copies’ of other works, such as a set of reproductions of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series rendered in dots, but also pieces that are a composite of two different artists. The selection prompts plenty of questions about authorship: Is Femme d’Alger, for example, a Lichtenstein that looks like a Picasso or a Picasso that looks like a Lichtenstein?

Laocoön (inspired by classical mythology) is a superb example of how he played with form. There are ‘splashes’ of colour – but they are not splashes, they are intrusions of one colour into another and the space has been quite deliberately left for them, with great narrative control. It looks spontaneous, but it is actually a carefully controlled experiment – a picture of an expressionist painting.

It reveals his complex relationship with the history of art - respectful and resistant, playful and parodic. Lichtenstein presents himself as a commentator on art and on society, as a self-conscious reflector on his own and other artistic forms. His work might be a painting of a copy of a poster, say: a copy of a copy of a copy. And, of course, it’s the ultimate irony that those of his works that we recognise we know, most of us, only through copies… postcards, posters, canvas bags. What is the original? What is the copy?

Landscape in Fog 1996 **

Even with the late Chinese landscapes there is something playful – like the Landscape with Philosopher, over 8 feet tall and nearly 4 feet wide, in which the figure of the philosopher is barely three inches high; similarly in Landscape with Boat the boat itself occupies a fraction of the whole. There’s more subtle humour in the Perfect/Imperfect series in Room 10, in which he plays with boundaries and lines that contain (or don’t) the idea of the painting: each Imperfect picture has a triangular protrusion, as if he’s got the edge wrong, somehow.

From the very first room, Brushstrokes (also ‘art about art’ as James Rondeau observes), we see Lichtenstein playing with the conventions and examining them. Later he still occasionally displays his pure pleasure in the brushstroke, even when he is trying to regulate and level out everything he does. He throws you off kilter all the time. Despite the uniformity, the regularity, his approach is still painterly.

And that is the key to this sparkling retrospective; you have to go round in circles, making connections with connections with connections. With Lichtenstein – indefinable, unmistakeable – what you see is what you get. Or not.

You don’t have to understand it all, though. You can simply enjoy.

* Oh, Jeff…I Love You, Too…But… 1964
Collection Simonyi
© Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012

** Landscape in Fog 1996
Private Collection
© Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012

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