Lichtenstein: A Restrospective @ Tate Modern

To the major Lichtenstein Restrospective at Tate Modern, the biggest expo of his work in 20 years, bringing together 125 works etc. I didn’t like it much. The comic book stuff is so familiar from a thousand posters that it barely registers – then the exhibition goes on to reveal a surprising number of other aspects of his work, often gathered into ‘series’ of paintings on a given subject – I was particularly struck by the sculpture. But none of it floated my boat and here’s why.

Biography

Born in 1923, Lichtenstein was a teenager during the Second World War and a young artist struggling to find a voice in the 1950s US art world dominated by the stars of Abstract Expressionism, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning. Room 12 has a handful of small paintings from this era showing his early, undistinguished daubs. He was clearly going nowhere.

Then, right at the start of the 1960s, Lichtenstein invented Pop Art with a large oil painting of a cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck – Look Mickey! It looks rough to us today but was a radical step in Art History, incorporating factory-made, mass culture, junk culture images into the ‘High Art’ context of oil painting.

Within a year Lichtenstein realised that the Ben-day dots technique used to create pictures in comic books could themselves be recreated in his paintings – as a new technique, as an experiment in image creation on a large scale, as an ironic comment on ‘low culture’, as an hommage to Pointillism, as all sorts of things – a breakthrough which quickly led to the creation of the huge, iconic paintings of images lifted from comic books for which he immediately became famous. For example, 1963’s ‘Whaam!’.

Roy Lichtenstein, Whaam! 1963 (Tate. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012)

Whaam! (1963) by Roy Lichtenstein. Tate. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012

One of the most interesting things in the exhibition was a copy of the original comic strip which Whaam! is adapted from. It reveals the surprising extent to which Lichtenstein changed and clarified the image. He added the tail wing section, deleted a green hill from the bottom left, deleted the pilot’s speech bubble, and deleted two other jets either side of the one blowing up. The colours are reduced to black and white, grey, blue, red and his trademark bright yellow. The image is made simpler, crisper, cleaner. Well, after close examination, I think i began to prefer the image in the comic: it was dirtier, exciting and dynamic, part of a gripping action sequence, everything the sterilised Lichtenstein image had ceased to be. The Lichtenstein image is camp, knowing, ironic, cool, detached… and boring.

They missed a trick by not selling replicas of the original 1960s action comics in the Tate shop. Boys like me and my son would have snapped them up.

(Soon after publishing this post, I received a comment from David Barsalou linking to the flickrstream – deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein – which he’s created comparing some 140 Lichtenstein artworks with the comic strip source images, along with fascinating biographies of the comicbook artists who created the original art.)

Overdetermination

I bought and listened to the headphone commentary which gives two minutes or so on each of 24 works selected from the total 125 here. The biographical facts were interesting, and interesting to have the art world of the times and the outline of his career explained. But a lot of the commentary piled layers of academic interpretation onto very simple images.

Take the magnifying glass, created from or decorated with his trademark Ben-day dots – but within the circle of the glass the dots are magnified. All-too-predictably the commentary makes this an ironic comment on the art of painting, an observation about the act of seeing, an insight into the emptiness at the heart of consumer culture, a self-reflexive commentary on the artist’s career put under the microscope by probing modern critics, a probing enquiry into the nature of ‘originality’ and quite a few other things as well.

In the commentary all of the paintings are overdetermined like this, larded with layer on layer of learned analysis. Slowly all the kitsch comic fun of the paintings was drained out of them, replaced by the joyless discourse of humourless curators and academics.

Take another example, Nudes With Beachball. Painted in 1994, this is one of a series of comicbook female nudes Lichtenstein did in the 1990s, towards the end of his life (he died in 1997). It uses the trademark Ben-day dot technique and simple outlines and primary colours (dominated by his trademark honey yellow) but all these later nudes are, in my opinion, somehow crude; even as outlines, as cartoons, they’re not very good. You rarely see these ones on postcards – they lack the gee-whizz gusto of the earlier work, and they lack the caption texts which make the early ones so knowingly funny. But this didn’t stop the commentary burying them in learned allusions: to the centuries-old tradition of nudes; to Picasso’s women-on-beach paintings; to RL’s earlier works; turns out these images are ‘problematising the nature of recreation time in late capitalist society’ etc. The commentary even added a modish allusion to the whiff of lesbianism in these images of naked women playing, so that they turn out to be subverting heteronormative conventions of gender identity.

Well, if you work in an academic environment saturated in gender studies, queer studies, women’s studies and so on, then probably any picture with some women in it will turn out to be repressing its latent lesbianism. Lichtenstein’s widow, Dorothy, interviewed for the exhibition, suggested that he just liked women and the shape of women. I agree. We men are sometimes rather simple that way. As Freud nearly said, sometimes eye candy is just eye candy. Even when it’s an ironic and knowing comment on ‘Society’s imprisoning of the Female Body within the Patriarchal Male Gaze’, it can also just be cartoon-perfect naked women cavorting on a beach.

Something similar happens in the big room dismayingly titled Art about Art. It turns out that Lichtenstein painted lots of pictures riffing on earlier art – Picasso was a particular favourite so all periods of the Big Man’s career are put through the Ben-day dot process, along with reworkings of Monet (Rouen Cathedral), a horrible late repainting of Laocoon etc.

This sort of allusion continues in the Artists Studio series where various big paintings of empty rooms feature well-known paintings hanging on the walls, including Matisse’s La Danse. This is the kind of intertextuality critics and curators love and gives them the opportunity to write about the artist ‘engaging’ with the Tradition, ‘recontextualising’ the gestures of his predecessors, taking ‘a highly intellectual approach towards the role of the artist and what painting means in a post-industrial world’ and so on and on. Not untrue. But doesn’t conceal the fact they’re still rather boring paintings of empty rooms which – you suspect -were created with an eye on the high-minded verbiage critics and curators would be able to spin out of them.

A selection of Lichtenstein’s Artist’s Studio paintings on Google images

Room by room

This, the largest Lichtenstein retrospective for 20 years or so, is organised across 13 rooms:

Room 1 Brushstrokes

The early days. Lichtenstein is crushed by Abstract Expressionism’s obsession with the paint stroke – or splatter – as embodiment of tortured, masculine creativity. He attempts the same style but is too ordered, too sane and too colourful to carry it off. Still, the close attention to the power and form of The Brushstroke is to last his entire career.

Room 2 Early Pop

Features Look Mickey! along with other early Pop images taken from posters, adverts or product pictures, for example, a painting of a big sponge swiping across a surface – Sponge II (1962) – presumably from an ad about a cleaning product. In a lot of these images you see the woman’s hand holding what is often a household implement. This allows the commentary to point out that women did most of the housework in the early 1960s and that, these images are ironic comments on the fact that women did most of the housework in the 1960s.

Room 3 Black and White

Images taken from commercial posters or brochures, isolated (or ‘islanded’ in curatorspeak) on white backgrounds: for example, Tire (1962), a Magnifying glass (1962), an Engagement ring (1961) Alka Seltzer (1966). My son liked the tyre, a bit. I should have liked some or all of these, I like black and white, I like clearly framed photos and clean images. But I found these paintings empty and lifeless. The commentary tells me they ‘lay bare the reductive nature of commercial images’. But we know images of products in adverts are simplified and reductive. Maybe they’re a mirror; maybe they reflect your mood or personality; maybe you can just find them fun and cool and easy on the eye, like my son did.

Apparently the magnifying glass ‘reveals another strategy of pop art: subverting the scale of objects’. I think what upsets me about the commentary and curatorspeak of this exhibition is it treats us like children, as if it’s never occurred to any of us that we live in a consumer society, as if we’d never noticed that adverts are a bit simplified and a bit unrealistic, as if it took an Artist to reveal these things to us, as if my world is going to be turned upside down when I see that the dots inside the magnifying glass are bigger than the dots outside it; as if it’s the first time I’ve come across a 20th century painter playing with the conventions of painting, instead of the thousandth time I’ve come across a Dead White Painter having his go at pimping up an exhausted medium.

Room 4 War and Romance

These are the big paintings of comic book images we all know and love. Half from True Romance type comics, with hilariously straight action men and earnest blondes; half from shoot-’em-up war comics like Whaam!, showing heroic soldiers and airmen.

Selection of Lichtenstein romance images on Google images

Once again I felt the commentary was aimed at wide-eyed 13 or 14 year olds. It patiently explains that these paintings ‘explore melodramatic stories and cliched gender roles as disseminated through American mass media, including film.’ Golly. Who do they imagine does not know that film is part of mass media? And they talk with such a patronising tone about the 50s and 60s as if gender stereotypes like rugged action heroes or dopey blondes are a thing of the remote past and never occur in modern Hollywood movies.

Is it worth commenting on the romance cartoons? That they’re cheesy and kitsch? That they’ve been made into, and given birth to, an entire style of knowing, ironic postcards and posters which are light and funny – as long as you don’t stop to analyse them to death. The idea was genius, wasn’t it? Lichtenstein created a whole new wing of the modern popular mind.

Roy Lichtenstein, Oh, Jeff…I Love You, Too…But… 1964 (Collection Simonyi © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012)

Oh, Jeff…I Love You, Too…But… (1964) by Roy Lichtenstein. Collection Simonyi © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012

Room 5 Landscapes/Seascapes

There were a couple of unusual works in this small room: one, Seascape, used two shades of flexed blue plastic (Rowlux) behind a screen to create the illusion of sea and sky, completely unlike anything else in the exhibition. There was no explanation why this one ‘sport’ exists. It was my son’s favourite work. Otherwise ,natural scenes get the Ben-day treatment, such as Sunrise (1965).

Room 6 Modern

A commission to do a poster for New York’s Lincoln Centre led Lichtenstein to become interested in the geometrical shapes of Art Deco and resulted in so-so paintings incorporating Deco motifs – but also some striking geometric sculptures in bronze. Striking – but made you want to go back and revisit the wondrous Art Deco originals.

Room 7 Art about Art

One of the two largest rooms in the exhibition, dedicated to Lichtenstein’s reworkings of, that’s to say engagement with images by classic painters – ‘whether through appropriation, stylisation or parody’. Included here are his reworkings of pieces by his hero Picasso or Matisse or Mondrian or Monet’s facades of Rouen cathedral. They are clear, bright and pointless. The Rouen cathedral trptych (1969) is actively horrible. There’s his version of Femme d’Algers (1963) ‘engaging with’ Picasso’s Women of Algiers, which – it turns out – itself was engaging with Eugene Delacroix’s Women of Algeria from 1830. Has the energy level gone up or down in each successive version?

Room 8 Artist’s Studio

Four or five massive paintings of empty rooms from 1973-4. In terms of neatness of outline and clarity of design these are attractive though the same air of pointlessness hangs over them as over so much else. The commentary says the way he incorporates his own earlier paintings hanging on the walls of these rooms, for example in Artist’s Studio – Look Mickey (1973), is as if the older paintings are having the dialogue that should be taking place among the human figures who are absent from the rooms. Paintings have replaced people. Well, quite.

Maybe the absence of any lifelike human figures from any of these 125 works is because he can’t do lifelike human figures. Or because he can’t render people unless they’re in kitsch comic-book style.

Room 9 Mirrors and Entablatures

Lichstenstein became interested in the pediments and entablatures of neoclassical buildings in New York. He painted scores of entablatures. The commentary points out that he based the paintings on photographs he took of New York buildings.

Some of Lichtenstein’s entablatures on Google images

Hard to get very excited about. Because I saw Steve Reich performing earlier in the week it occurred to me these are a visual form of the musical minimalism which was the coming thing in the early 1970s, of the sometimes numbing repetition of the same motif countless times, there being no hidden meaning or emotion, the motif itself and its iteration being the sole point.

By the early 70s Lichtenstein had painted nearly fifty versions or, as the commentary has it, coded renderings of mirrors featuring different arrangements of Ben-day dots to convey shadow. In these paintings he is turning on its head the centuries old tradition of artists holding up a mirror to nature since these mirrors reflect nothing except their own painterly surface.

Some of Lichtenstein’s mirror paintings

Again, these seem like an idea designed to make post-structuralist art critics who’ve read their Jacques Lacan and know about his idea of the Mirror Stage of development go into ecstasies. But regarded purely as images hanging on a wall. Meh, as my son puts it, walking on.

Room 10 Perfect and Imperfect

Lichtenstein drew straight lines and made them ricochet off the inside edge of the canvas to create jagged fragments, then coloured in the spaces. These are the ‘perfect paintings’ of the title. If the line went beyond the rectangle of the frame a bit, he added an extra jag to the canvas and these are the ‘imperfect paintings’. The results are pretty dull but, according to the commentary, they ‘explore the vocabulary of abstraction with geometric fields of colour that challenge the edges of the traditional canvas’.

To quote the man himself: ‘It seemed to be the most meaningless way to make an abstraction.’ That feeling comes over very clearly.

Some of Lichtenstein’s Perfect and Imperfect paintings

Room 11 Late Nudes

This is the third really big room – along with big rooms for the classic comicbooks and for the art-with-art dialogues. Late in life Roy returned to comic book subject matter but this time stripped the women in the comic books naked. The same comic book style. The same Ben-day dots. The same clearly-rendered three-dimensional spaces. The same cartoon-perfect women as in the 1960s paintings. But this time naked, showing their perfect cartoon breasts. Maybe the commentary found signs of latent lesbianism in these because it was desperate to find signs of anything other than the obvious – these are huge paintings of naked cartoon women. Apparently, these kinky nudes ‘broached one of the most ancient genres of art, the nude, returning to the female subject in a new and provocative way’.

Some of Lichtenstein’s late nudes

The commentary explains, with hushed respect, that apparently Lichtenstein proceeded by choosing images of women from his vast collection of comic books and then imagined them without their clothes on. Hard not to laugh when reading this. Yes, he’s the only man who’s ever ever undressed women in his imagination. Is this what makes him so unique and so provocative? Apparently, for ‘the result is a disturbing violation of conventions. The noble nude has been rendered as erotic pulp.’

The noble nude? What, the same one featured in the Sunday Sport, page 3 of our bestselling newspaper, posters in tube stations and on the sides of buses, thousands of rap videos, gratuitously included in action films and gritty TV dramas, sprawled all over supermarket checkout magazines, plastered on the covers of tabloids and fashion rags and Nuts and FHM, pitilessly depicted in the paintings of Egon Schiele and Lucien Freud and in Tracy Emin sketches and Sarah Lucas installations, the same noble nude who stars in billions of web pages of soft, hard and beyond-belief porn?

Yes, that noble nude; yes, I was disturbed beyond words to find images of that noble nude featuring in squeaky-clean, wall-size cartoon paintings. I may never recover from the shock.

The only works which piqued my interest were a few sculptures. These are rendered in 2D i.e. they’re 3D artifacts but imagined as flat, with key spaces left empty so they are see-through: one was of a cartoon woman’s head, coloured blue on one side, red on the other. As empty of affect as everything else in the exhibition, this was still a striking object. Maybe my favourite piece was Galatea (1990), a cartoon version of abstraction: the yellow flick at the top is cartoon blonde hair, the two red roundels in the middle are cartoon breasts with cartoon black nipples and the biggest circle is the belly complete with black belly button.

On on level as trite as the hundreds of cartoon, but I liked the curve, the shapes it made, and the way it’s not solid, the curves filled with straight, coloured hatchings, the transparency. It still has the lumpy, literal, thick-black-outline heaviness I now associate with Lichtenstein, but it was the nearest to something genuinely graceful and creative that I saw in the whole exhibition.

The gallery attendant is presumably included in this press photo of Galatea to give a sense of scale, but don’t you think that she’s more interesting, aesthetically, than the sculpture? That there’s so much more going on with the attendant, with her shape, her stance, her clothes, the swirl of her hair, her lips, and expression? So much more life?

Room 12 From Alpha to Omega

A small room mingling some of Lichtenstein’s early pre-pop paintings with much later works; the idea is to show the continuity, the centrality of The Brushstroke; particularly in the late works which include ‘Brushstroke’ in the titles and feature crude brushstrokes splurged over his trademark clean, precise cartoon subjects; subverting or disfiguring them, certainly clashing two different painterly ‘worlds’. I like the idea, like playing chords from two unrelated keys at the same moment. I just wish the actual paintings were more interesting.

Some of Lichtenstein’s Brushstrokes series

Room 13 Chinese Landscapes

The commentary tries to persuade us that these works from the 1990s which apply the Lichtenstein Look to Chinese art – portrait shape, tall mountains in mist – are late masterpieces ‘reaching new heights of sophistication’. If only. The jokey campness of RL’s style really does not mix with the serene dignity of the Chinese originals. The guide breathlessly informs us that the Great White Painter used ‘as many as 15 different size of dots’ in these paintings! Fancy! All those dots and not a speck of soul.

Some of Lichtenstein’s Chinese landscapes


Romantic versus Classic

Early on the commentary makes a distinction between the Romantic nature of Abstract Expressionism – the feverish outpourings of the tortured souls Pollock and Rothko reflecting the post-War Existentialist philosophy of Angst and Abandonment – and the light, airy, clean and detached Classicism of Pop, clinically selecting imagery from the commercial world around us and subjecting it to processes of repetition and simplification. Think of Warhol’s silks of Marilyn, soup cans etc.

This really helps to place Lichtenstein: All of his art is about knowingness and detachment. It is all ironic. At various points curators refer to his ‘wit’. Quite. Wit is to Classicism as Comedy is to Romanticism. If the Romantic is about emotions and its comic form is belly laughs, uncontrolled mirth, laughing through tears, then Classicism is about the controlling intellect and its comic form – Wit – is learnèd and dry and allusive and clever.

This dichotomy helped me put into words why I didn’t like most of the images on display here. I found them cold, detached, ironic and empty. My son said he spent an hour and a half walking round, looking carefully and listening to the commentary, and emerged as unmoved as he went in. He didn’t like them. He didn’t dislike them. He didn’t care about them, and he forgot them as soon as he’d left the gallery.

I learned a lot more about Lichtenstein and Pop Art than I knew before I went to the exhibition and for that I’m grateful to Tate and the curators for assembling such a comprehensive show. But part of what I learned is that I don’t like Lichtenstein and, sadly, that the overkill of academic commentary which drenches the show has ensured that I’ll never again be able to enjoy those light and witty postcards with the casual innocence they require.


Related links

All quotes are from the exhibition guide which is given out as a booklet to visitors or can be read online. Exhibition guide quotations copyright Tate Modern 2013.

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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