I remember studying Roy Lichtenstein in year 9 art class. His cartoon-strip-inspired pop art was accessible – more so than the abstract paintings (Klee, Kandinsky) we were also shown – and so I enjoyed making a Lichtenstein replica, complete with American ‘Hey Brad’ style speech bubbles.
But his retrospective is, for me, too accessible: it doesn’t challenge me enough. The exhibition, currently on display at Tate Modern, is room-after-room of canvases painted in primary colours – dots, speech bubbles, cartoon characters.
I can see that a graphic artist might find Lichtenstein’s work inspiring but it just doesn’t cut the mustard for me any more.
There were a few redeeming, thought-provoking features and works. I liked seeing the dots up-close, the brush strokes that would now (probably) be computer-generated, meticulously stencilled onto the canvas. The dots reminded me of Damian Hirst’s spot paintings:
Lichtenstein’s interest in mass production and commercialisation informed his cartoon-like paintings. Hirst is also interested in the art market and mass production – are his spots mocking, or a nod to, Lichtenstein’s dots?
Room 7 is devoted to Art about Art – large canvasses produced by Lichtenstein in homage to artists of the past: Picasso, Mondrian, Matisse. Their works are re-produced with his trademark block primary colours, thick black outlines and dots.
I liked this explanation, printed on the wall (the words of Sheena Wagstaff and Iria Candela):
*Lichtenstein, who emphatically stated that ‘the things that I have apparently parodied I actually admire’, regarded Picasso as the ‘greatest artist of the 20th century’ and openly acknowledged how much he had learned from him. In Femme d’Alger 1963 Lichtenstein translated Picasso’s Women of Algiers 1955 (itself based on an 1834 painting by Eugene Delacroix) into the pop idiom, transforming a high-art painting ‘into another high-art medium that pretends to be low art.’*
But why is it ‘pretending’ to be low art? Is this his intention? Who gets to decide what is high art and what is low art?
There are a small selection of rather nice art deco-style brass sculptures in Room 6: Modern. Lichtenstein saw the architecture of the art deco movement as being both beautiful and too easily replicated, the ‘merging of ornamentation and mass production’ (Wagstaff and Candela). He said: “The geometric logic of art deco [seemed] too easily to fit the instruments, the T-squares and compasses, of the designers and architects.”
I admire the idea that some designs are not complex enough to avoid cheap reproduction – but I find it sad, too.
This aside, I enjoyed a room near the end of the exhibition documenting the artist’s foray into abstract expressionism (late 1950s), prior to his discovery of – and decision to stick to – the pop-art style he became so famous for.
And also the final room, Chinese Landscapes, which – as the title suggests – focuses on open Chinese landscapes, with mountainous backdrops and sections of bonsai trees. These paintings hark back to his earlier, brief, expressionist experimentation – with strips of oil paint stretching the width of the canvas; quite dissimilar to his other dotted paintings.
Though I wasn’t blown away by this exhibition – as I was by A Bigger Splash – it inspired some new thinking, and reflections on past thoughts. And that makes it all worthwhile.