The Tate Modern is hosting a huge retrospective of the work of the renowned American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein (1923 – 1997). This exhibition is the first comprehensive portrayal of his art since his death in 1997 and features many of his most famous works. Lichtenstein was one of the most influential and famous artists of his time and became a central figure in the 20th century art world. He broke with abstract expressionism in the 1960’s and formed a new concept of painting based on comic strips, advertising and mass culture imagery.
The show takes a roughly chronological theme to present the development of Lichtenstein’s artistic ideas which grew into the popular art movement it was to become. In one of the first pictures of the show, ‘Brushstrokes’ we see how the brushstroke in effect takes the central stage in the picture. Lichtenstein always uses primary dramatic and fluorescent colours to give instantaneous effect. His objective was to make the stroke a controlled act not just a spontaneous expression of the artist’s feeling. In his famous early work called ‘Look Mickey’ we see how he imitated the industrial technique of comic books using primary colours , heavy black outlines and his signature style of Benday dots. It was the first time he used popular imagery and we learn from his wife, Dorothy Lichtenstein , who comments on a lot of the exhibition in the audio guide, that his inspiration came from an illustrated story book and that part of Lichtenstein’s concern was not to reveal anything about himself in his art. His later transformation of household objects such as a glove, spray can or ring continues this dissociation of his feelings from his art and they become a statement of his work. In many of these paintings there are allusions to the actual act of painting as well as the art work becoming a metaphor for painting itself.
Lichtenstein was fascinated by circular images and the idea of a perfect unified image as can be seen in the Black and white room. One of his ideas was to fill the entire canvas with the image he was drawing in order to achieve the exact fit between the work and its subject. ‘So in Portable Radio’, finished in 1962, the radio takes on the whole of the canvas and thus, as Lichtenstein wanted, ‘the painting itself can be thought of as an object.’ In his large scale paintings in the War and Romance room we see how they propelled him to almost instantaneous success as he transformed two popular subjects – war and romance – into iconic pop paintings. These subjects took over the whole of the canvas seen for example in his 1962 painting ‘Masterpiece’ which was a favourite of the time and in ‘Wham’. The idea that the nature of a cartoon is as far away from traditional art as you can get appealed to Lichtenstein and became the driving force of his artistic endeavour in the 1960’s. These paintings remind me of the paintings he produced in later years, in the 1990’s which are collectively called ‘The Nudes’ in the exhibition. Here Lichtenstein turns to the female subject and produces art in a new and provocative way. Huge, life size paintings of blonde, monumental healthy women are assembled together. The overall result for me was as if I was at a health pageant and we learn from his wife in the audio that Lichtenstein idolised women and viewed them as partly real and partly ironic. The painting ‘Blue Nude’ for example portrays a life size profile of a woman’s nude body and is erotically graphic. Moreover her expression and experience of desire itself as she is shown captured in a state of reverie reveals her own subjective experience of desire. She becomes both an object of desire and a subject of her own sexuality which is a heavy double entendre.
One of my favourite parts of the show is where we see Lichtenstein copying from and getting artistic inspiration from artists such as Matisse and Picasso. We see him in dialogue with the artists of the past where he playfully makes vivid recreations of famous works. In ‘Frolic’ for example he makes a series of paintings referring to Picasso’s obsessive affairs with Marie Therese Walter. Lichtenstein’s is a surreal version of the original Picasso and there are many layers of meanings in the painting. Likewise his painting of ‘Femme d’Alger' in 1963 is an open acknowledgement of how much he has learnt from Picasso and his 1955 painting , ‘Women of Algiers’ .
The exhibition is extensive and thorough portraying all of Lichtenstein’s different major artistic periods. It should definitely be at the top of your ‘must see’ exhibitions of the year.
by Larissa Woolf, Arts Editor, VisitMuseums.com