Perhaps not since the Warhol retrospective has the shop at Tate Modern done such a roaring trade. Pop Art is as its name suggestions – popular art. Thick, black outlines, primary colours, two-dimensional icons, themes of modern life and generic emotion – all easily transferable and relevant to this generation as they were to their first audiences in the Sixties. And crucially, all of the above coupled with the mass print production technique of Benday dots to imply tone and economise on paint makes the images highly reproducible. Available for purchase in the shop is everything from framed prints and posters through to t-shirts, handbags, cushion covers and cuff links. Personally, I bought a mug so I could enjoy a little bit of irony that I am one for buying it.
But that’s not fair; I get plenty of enjoyment from Roy Lichtenstein’s work, and the same can be said of this exhibition. He was fully aware of the lowbrow perception and commercial nature of his work and you have to appreciate the way he embraced it. “I’m interested in what would normally be considered the worst aspects of commercial art.” He once said. “I think it’s the tension between what seems to be so rigid and clichéd and the fact that art really can’t be this way.”
And, whatever your opinion of his sources, you have to admire him too for his distinctive style; you don’t have to be Brian Sewell to recognise a Lichtenstein. I remember as an 11-year-old having an art project where we had to paint something in his style. I was dead proud of the Kickers shoes so one of those became my model. Plenty of primary colours, dark lines and Benday dots later, I was a Lichtenstein expert.
Though his work looks lowbrow on the surface, there is more to it as this retrospective rightly points out.
His style was born out of a rejection of the fashion at the time for the Jackson Pollock fronted Abstract Expressionism and a fascination with printed mass media, particularly the ability to create so much meaning and depth with such a limited use of colour. One of the first works in the show tackles this directly.
Little Big Painting 1965, depicts brushstrokes – the archetypal product of a painter. For the Abstract Expressionists a brushstroke was a personal statement, something nonreplicable and unique to its creator but here Lichtenstein has turned it into a something standardised, mechanical and above all, reproducible.
The real Power Play room of the exhibition is undoubtedly Room 4: War and Romance – the subject matter that launched him. In here are the Lichtenstein big guns, the appropriately titled Whaam!, which you can see at the top of this blog, Drowning Girl, Hopeless and a personal favourite Masterpiece. A blonde girl tells a dark haired, chiselled artist, “Why Brad darling, this painting is a masterpiece! My, soon you’ll have all of New York clamoring for your work”. Aside from the obvious wordplay about the painting that we’re looking at, Masterpiece is joke about himself, as he became increasingly successful, playing on the narcissistic tendencies of the New York art scene.
The subject matter of the War and Romance room is well thought out because those themes should really cause an emotional reaction from the viewer. But both Lichtenstein’s humour in the cliché and the comic book style make it hard to become too sentimental about the melodramatic, drowning girl or the unfortunate pilot being shot out of the sky. “I was interested in using highly charged material [in] a very removed, technical, almost engineering drawing style”, he said.
He often stated that he was quite detached from his subject matter; that it wasn’t about himself but I think that’s not entirely true. In paintings throughout his career he frequently depicted idealised female figures. Dorothy Herzka, his wife from 1968 until his death in 1997, spoke about how he certainly adored the female form and late in his career we see him take on one of the most ancient art genres – the nude. Girls frolic with beach balls and lie provocatively on beds but rather than using live models, these girls were created as a result of his imagination. He referred back to his comic and newspaper clippings of fashion models and then using his powers as an artist, undressed them on canvas.
It’s in the same room as the nudes that his sculpture, Galatea 1990, stands. This is the Greek myth where the sculptor, Pygmalion, falls in love with his own work, Galatea, a perfectly formed, ivory female figure. In answer to his prayers and much to Pygmalion’s delight, Aphrodite brings Galatea to life and unites the two in marriage. And so in this room of Lichtenstein-imagined nudes, like with Masterpiece, we see another joke at his own expense.
Lichtenstein: A Retrospective is at Tate Modern until 27th May.
By Edward Lines