Roy Lichtenstein’s comic inspired works have intrigued art enthusiasts for several decades, but this complete retrospective grants insight into other aspects of the artist’s long career. The exhibition, co-organised by The Art Institute of Chicago and Tate Modern, has seen great success already in Chicago and Washington, D.C., setting the stage for another Tate blockbuster.
Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) has one of the most distinctive and recognizable styles in 20th-century art. With popular imagery, a primary colour palette, and scenes of romance and war, Lichtenstein is regarded as an All-American art hero. Beginning his career with abstract expressionism, Lichtenstein did not discover his unique style until he was almost 40 years old, a relatively late start. Despite what may be considered a delayed coming-of-artistic-age, the artist enjoyed a varied and iconic career spanning four decades.
The first room of the exhibition looks at Lichtenstein’s departure from abstract expressionism with his “Brushstrokes” paintings. These works parody the spontaneity and frenzy of the methods of ab.ex. artists, like Jackson Pollock. By meticulously painting and embellishing an image of a brushstroke, Lichtenstein makes strides into what would later be considered postmodern pastiche. These early works are easily recognizable as made by Lichtenstein, but it was actually “Look Mickey” of 1961 that signalled the transition into popular culture imagery. Supposedly based on a challenge from his son about what art “is”, Lichtenstein adapted an existing comic strip featuring the well-known character of Mickey Mouse. The pop culture references and limited colour palette give Lichtenstein’s an air of accessibility and simplicity, but really “his signature style was determined by the tension between the apparent superficiality of his pictures – always anchored by finely tuned compositions – and a highly intellectual approach towards the social role of the artist and what painting means in a post-industrial world.”
With Lichtenstein, like Warhol, Koons, Hirst, etc., there are always questions of copyright and authorship hanging around the work. Unlike Warhol, Koons, Hirst, etc., Lichtenstein created all of his work by hand, by himself. The workshop tradition goes back into the depths of art history but became quite exploited in the 20th-century, though not by Lichtenstein. The appropriation of existing content also becomes a bit of a contentious issue in the 20th-century, and Lichtenstein has been criticised for not crediting or citing the sources of his imagery. Always adapting source material to varying degrees, Lichtenstein uses the appropriation of pre-existing images as a comment on the mass-produced, post-industrial society of the time.
Lichtenstein’s most recognizable and well-known images are of course his comic book style war and romance paintings, but these images only account for a six or seven year period of the artist’s career. Drawing also inspiration from advertising, early modernism, and the art historical canon, Lichtenstein’s oeuvre is filled with variety while remaining consistent to his signature style.
Adjacent to the war and romance gallery is a monochromatic series exploring line and composition. The black and white series features relatively simple compositions with stark contrast. Twice removed from actual objects, these paintings are reproductions of images of objects from advertising. Instead of painting from life, as was encouraged in traditional painting, Lichtenstein is embracing the mass-produced image as source material. It is also in this room that the visitor is granted insight into the artist’s famous spots. Earlier works appear to have each dot individually painted by hand, but with this series Lichtenstein experiments with ways of uniformly creating the pattern. Beginning with metal templates that shifted and smeared, Lichtenstein eventually settled on a Ben-Day dot technique utilised by the comic book artists he was copying.
In comparison to the dramatic and action-filled paintings Lichtenstein is known for, the landscape and seascape series is simple and calm. Though they are simple and calm, this series is far from dull, and Lichtenstein experimented with materials to create more depth and interest. Using primarily horizontal bands of spots the paintings ask viewers to reconsider their conceptions of landscape painting. “Seashore” (1964) has several panels of spots on Plexiglas that give the illusion of subtle movement, much like the sea on a quiet day. Seascapes also represent Lichtenstein’s only film work entitled “Three Landscapes” (1970-1). Working by invitation in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s ‘Art and Technology’ programme, Lichtenstein created a one-minute film that collages film footage with still images and the iconic Ben-Day dots. The film will be shown in the Tanks at Tate Modern in March and is a perfect accompaniment to the primary exhibition.
Perhaps the most surprising gallery of the exhibition is that which focuses on Lichtenstein’s sculptures influenced by Art Deco. Growing up in New York in the 1920s and 30s, the artist was exposed to the clean but decorative machine aesthetic. When commissioned to design a poster for Lincoln Center in Manhattan, Lichtenstein was inspired by the “merging of ornamentation and mass production” found in Art Deco design and used this throughout his artistic practice. In addition to lovely and quirky brass sculptures, “Modern Painting Triptych” (1967) places three nearly identical panels side by side, giving the impression of mass production, though each was painting individually by hand.
Demonstrating Lichtenstein as a transitional figure between modernism and postmodernism is his series of works based on well-known pieces from the history of art. These parodies are fun and represent artists from Picasso, Monet, Matisse, and Mondrian back to Greek sculpture. In reference to these works, Lichtenstein has said, “The things I have apparently parodied I actually admire”. Not meant to devalue the contributions to art of previous masters, the art about art series is just a progression of Lichtenstein’s appropriation of pre-existing content.
The rest of the exhibition focuses on Lichtenstein’s late works that have not been previously exhibited with the more well-known works. The late nudes still employ extensive use of Ben-Day dots for shading and a palette of primary colours, but the dots vary in size and shape and the palette includes additional secondary and unusual colours. Monumental in size the nudes refer again to the age-old tradition of nude paintings, but Lichtenstein’s nudes were “rendered as erotic graphic pulp.” Subverting historical notions of the gaze and woman as object, these nudes remain objects of desire but also take control and experience desire of their own. Interestingly, it has been said that instead of using live models for this series, Lichtenstein used women from comics as models, continuing to further remove objects from nature and their original context. The last room displays Lichtenstein’s lesser-known Chinese landscape series. Though he experimented with landscapes earlier in his career, this series is softer, more subtle than previous works. Variations in the size of spots creates a gradient effect and smoother transitions between colours and forms. Though not as iconic as other works, these landscapes are still immediately recognizable as the work of Lichtenstein.
In addition to dozens of paintings, Lichtenstein: A Retrospective also includes a number of sculptures, drawings, collages, and works on paper. Visitors will encounter old favourites within the exhibition, but also make many new discoveries about the work and career of one of the most famous artists of the 20th-century. At initial glance, the works appear superficial, but upon further examination the creativity and wit (in addition to excellent technique) become apparent and add to the appreciation of the work.
Words and Images: Emily Sack © ArtLyst 2013
Rating: **** (4 Stars)