Sunday, 3 March 2013

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective at the Tate Modern

The Tate Modern on a misty Tuesday

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective opened about a week ago and the Tate boast that this is 'the first comprehensive account of his art since his death'. Roy Lichtenstein is a bit of an icon and was hugely influenced by commercial illustration and printed media, along with the greats of modern art that came before him. I enjoy his work because it's both humorous and thought-provoking so I was keen to give this exhibition an look.

Roy Lichtenstein in 1985


Roy Lichtenstein was born on October 27th 1923 and he died on September 29th 1997 at the age of 73.  He was born and raised a New Yorker in an upper middle class Jewish family and grew up to be one of the greats of the Pop Art movement that exploded in the 1960s.

Initially when I reached the end of the exhibition I thought 'Wow, that's a bold move; to curate a Lichtenstein retrospective and leave out the main comic book works that he is most well know for'. It gradually dawned on me that I had missed that room entirely, but I was through the exit and into the gift shop before the penny dropped - not wanting to miss out I circled back around and re-entered the exhibition. So here's an expert tip for you: don't refuse the little exhibition guide that they give you on the way in. It has a map on it.

Look Mickey (1961)

I've got to say it's comforting that he made is first proper 'Pop' painting - Look Mickey - when he was 37. It took him a while to find his thing, but from then on he was incredibly productive and took it in all sort of directions.

Lichtenstein's Pop style evolved as a reaction to the loose immediacy of Abstract Expressionism. In the early 1960s he developed a very recognisable painting style based on the printing methods of mass media that included a limited colour palette (initially just red, yellow and blue), poor registration and halftone dots. Lichtenstein himself said it was "post-industrial art".

Brushstroke (1965)

He did a number of pieces that are one or two panels and are like simple how-to diagrams. They're domestic and cleanly appealing, but oddly stiff and devoid of life. I particularly liked this one, patronisingly showing you how to use a pedal bin...

Step-On Can With Leg (1961)

One of the wall texts said that Lichtenstein "...laid bare the reductive nature of commercial images". I guess that's what they're talking about.

Ball of twine (1963) + Large Jewels (1963)

In the Black & White room items are dispassionately represented in the same way, whether it's a 2 meter tall jewelled brooch or a dizzyingly massive ball of twine. The object is either isolated on the canvas or so big that the canvas becomes the object, like Compositions I (1964); a giant notebook hanging on the wall.

Compositions (1964)

The stark, planned-out images look like they are machine made, not hand painted in oil on canvas. Most of the works are of a scale that you don't need to look at all closely to tell what it is. They are clear and bold and easy to recognise, but if you step up close you start to see the human intervention; the pencil lines still present and the rough edges of brushstrokes. Like printers don't print white, Lichtenstein often doesn't paint the areas of white in his pictures, so you see through to the bare canvas.

Drowning Girl (1963)

The War + Romance room represents Lichtenstein's most famous and recognisable works, based on panels from comics such as All-American Men of War and Girls' Romances. Men are violent protagonists bent on destroying unidentified enemies and women are hesitant and hopeless. The paintings are larger than life, and suitably unrealistic. They portray "the 'pregnant moment' - the crux from which one can imagine the whole story" and that's usually exactly the point you want to find when you're making an illustration for a narrative. In that respect the paintings are quite a good masterclass in how much one image can communicate through colours, expressions, a few well chosen words.

These images are riddled with cliché but Lichtenstein's scrutiny, and the comically large scale, illuminates them with a wry irony.

Whaam! (1963)

Sunrise (1965) is triumphant and glorious but also something of a parody of a sunset. It's based on the background of a comic strip panel and that fact made me feel a bit awkward about believing it to actually be a beautiful sunrise when it's really just two dimensional lines and dots.

Sunrise (1965)

In the mid '60s Lichtenstein began painting landscapes and seascapes. The paintings are moving towards abstraction. They look mostly empty but are still bustling with large areas of halftone dots.

Seascape (1965)

Pop art is 'popular' art for the people, but Lichtenstein is also an artist's artist. He plumbs the depths of art history, using motifs from Classical Art, Cubism, Surrealism, Impressionism, Modernism. All of these are thoughtfully investigated and incorporated into his visual vocabulary.

Frolic (1977)

Whilst looking at Frolic (1977) I overheard a woman say "As weird as it is - you know exactly what it is, don't you?" Not only is the girl in the picture playing aimlessly, the artist is frolicking too. Lichtenstein is experimenting and testing concepts, but he is speaking a language we understand.

Lichtenstein painted a series called 'Artist's Studio' which are four really large paintings of studio interiors. As you would expect they use flat, bold colours and the expanse of them is a little stifling. They depict interiors with furniture, paintings, mirrors, objects and even music in The Dance (1974). I think they're more like imaginary studios; the places in his mind where his work comes from. The paintings hung on the wall are by artists who have influenced him and there are some of his own there too.

The Dance (1974)

Drawing a mirror is quite a tricky task. People usually identify a mirror by what is reflected in it, but what happens if you take that away. Lichtenstein did a series of mirror paintings that have all the qualities of a mirror - bar the reflections. They are mirror-sized and shaped canvases, with painted-on bevelled edges, light and frames, yet they are devoid of reflection.

Mirror #1 (1969)

Mirror #10 (1970)

Lichtenstein's style may be 'reductive' but he didn't stick to static objects that are straightforward to reduce. He played around with graphically representing things that are quite difficult to represent: like reflective surfaces, water, explosions, mist and light. They aren't literal interpretations but still look so fitting.

Wall Explosion II (1965)

Alka Seltzer (1966)

Self Portrait (1978)

Landscape with Boat (1996)

There's loads in this exhibition and it's quite varied, even though it's cohesive. The size of many of the pieces means that it's a totally different experience to see them in person instead of looking at them in books or online. I'd say it's well worth a visit.

If you've seen the exhibition leave a comment and share your opinion!

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective is on at the Tate Modern until the 27th May 2013.
Entry is £14 / £12.20 for Students / free for Tate members


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