I could probably stand out by saying I didn’t like the Roy Lichtenstein retrospective at the Tate Modern, which shows Lichtenstein’s lasting legacy in 125 paintings and sculptures; but I did. The retrospective is a complete survey of Lichtenstein’s transformation of popular culture into fine art. It also allowed the viewer to see the playful side of the pop art artist Lichtenstein.
Lichtenstein is a key figure of Pop art, an art movement that developed in the late 50s in the US, which draws on popular culture. Pop art is often viewed as a response to abstract expressionism, such as Pollock’s dripping paint. Lichtenstein’s brushstrokes series, particularly Brushstroke with Spatter (1966), could be interpreted as a parody of Pollock pouring paint onto the canvas. Lichtenstein’s influences were diverse, comprising advertising, comic books and modern artists he admired. My takeaways from the exhibition are Lichtenstein’s ability to turn popular culture into fine art and his diverse range of influences, both of which point to the concept of appropriation. He appropriates comic books as easily as he does the artists who preceded him.
I believe the piece that illustrates best Lichtenstein’s appropriation is Portrait Triptych (Study) in room 7, Art about Art, which shows his reinterpretation of artworks made by artists including Picasso, Monet and Mondrian. On the left portrait of the triptych, we see a woman depicted as per Lichtenstein’s own style: pretty, blond, red lips as with women in his romance paintings. In the middle portrait, he draws the same woman using Picasso’s codes, borrowing from cubism as we see the female character from different angles and simplifying the woman’s features like Picasso would do, so that she looks like an African mask. The third portrait on the right reduces the sitter to strict lines using Mondrian’s abstraction to make a parallel with what was initially a figurative portrait. I felt the triptych was Lichtenstein’s playful demonstration to the viewer of his ability to appropriate and reinterpret other artists’ styles.
Of course we can’t discuss pop art and not evoke Andy Warhol, the other leading figure of pop art. We would have liked to hear that Warhol and Lichtenstein invented pop art like Picasso and Braque created cubism together. Like Lichtenstein, Warhol started against a backdrop of abstract art dominated by Rothko and the like. Warhol said he hated abstract expressionism and his art was certainly in reaction to it. Like Lichtenstein, Warhol celebrated popular imagery and his subjects matter was banal. Warhol paints a soup can; Lichtenstein paints a garbage can.
But unlike Warhol, Lichtenstein is a painter and a craftsman. Warhol was attracted by themes including death and celebrity. As a matter of fact, the Warhol 60 artists/50 years exhibition at the Met in 2012, did not include Roy Lichtenstein. Despite appropriating from comic books and other sources, Lichtenstein analysed the colours impact on psyche in his early paintings; the optical effects in his seascapes and in the juxtaposition of dots in his Ben-Day paintings; the light reflections in his mirrors; and perspective in his Chinese landscapes.
The Tate Modern show is a remarkable retrospective of the art of Roy Lichtenstein. Lichtenstein painted in series so the Tate has a more or less chronological hanging. Lichtenstein is perhaps most known for his appropriation of comic books: he takes a small frame, isolates it and put it on large format, making it fine art. The exhibition also shows the playful side of Lichtenstein, notably in his reinterpretation of other artists styles. He uses the same method in Portrait triptych as in Bull head I, II and III, which I saw in a private collection, showing a bull head Lichtenstein-style, à la Picasso in the middle artwork to Mondrian-abstract in the last painting. His facetious side is also present in his perfect/imperfect series, which you need to see to grasp. Until May 27.