The EY Exhibition: The World Goes Pop @ Tate Modern

Pop Art is not exactly a neglected movement. As recently as two years ago the Barbican hosted a comprehensive exhibition of Pop Design while at the same time Tate Modern was hosting a vast Roy Lichtenstein retrospective. In the spring of 2014 Tate Modern did a big Richard Hamilton show and earlier this year the Barbican’s exhibition about artists’ personal collections devoted a room each to the artifacts hoarded by Andy Warhol and Peter Blake. Who hasn’t heard of Warhol, seen the Elvis or Marilyn silk screen paintings or doesn’t know about Peter Blake’s Sergeant Pepper cover?

In this blockbuster show, The EY Exhibition: The World Goes Pop, Tate Modern turns its back on these well-worn artists and familiar images to examine the impact of pop everywhere outside the bubble of Britain and America, taking a comprehensive look at Pop Art from around the world. Thus the show brings together over 100 colourful, exuberant works from Latin America and Asia, from Europe and the Middle East.

Ushio Shinohara, Doll Festival (1966) Fluorescent paint, oil, plastic board on plywood Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art (Yamamura Collection) © Ushio and Noriko Shinohara

Ushio Shinohara, Doll Festival (1966) Fluorescent paint, oil, plastic board on plywood
Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art (Yamamura Collection). © Ushio and Noriko Shinohara

Art in the USA and Britain was essentially free, artists could more or less say or do anything and had the machinery of pop music and consumer adverts to play off against, to incorporate into their work and (the Beatles, the Velvet Underground) to help propagate their images.

If the exhibition says one thing it is how untrue this was of most of the rest of the world, where whole populations and their artists languished under all manner of dictatorships and repression: the entire communist bloc frozen by Soviet domination, southern Europe and a lot of Latin American nations ruled by traditionalist military juntas, African nations torn by civil wars (Biafra 1967-70), Pakistan heading towards the catastrophic Bangladesh genocide (1971), China about to experience the persecution and chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the war in Vietnam spilling over into neighbouring Cambodia and Laos. And looming behind it all, the ongoing Cold War confrontation between the superpowers with the ever-present threat of nuclear apocalypse.

Pop offered a new idiom with which to capture the absurdity of living in a society increasingly dominated by adverts for glossy lifestyle products while the whole world could be blown up at any moment.

Joan Rabascall, Atomic Kiss (1968) Acrylic on canvas MACBA Collection. Barcelona City Council Fund Photo: Tony Coll © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

Joan Rabascall, Atomic Kiss (1968) MACBA Collection. Barcelona City Council Fund. Photo: Tony Coll. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

Thus the global Pop Art the curators have gathered here is far more confrontational, troubled and often explicitly political than the Campbell soup tins and dated album covers of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. If Pop was an orgiastic celebration of the fabulousness of consumer culture here in the West, in most other places it was a language of protest, using the language and imagery of consumer goods and popular culture to satirise the repressive regimes of the artist’s homeland, to ironically comment on the shallow values of the fabulous West, which very often shaded into mild or not so mild anti-American sentiment.

Kiki Kogelnik, Bombs in Love (1962) Bombs in Love 1962 Kevin Ryan/Kiki Kogelnik Foundation Vienna/New York

Kiki Kogelnik, Bombs in Love (1962) Kevin Ryan/Kiki Kogelnik Foundation Vienna/New York

The 100+ works are packed with ideas and references, but several themes emerge strongly:

  • Satirising American consumerism The basic premise of Pop Art is its re-use of the explosion of new consumer products, advertising and popular culture in the post-war USA, seen at its most fatuous in the 1950s, and satirised and mocked from the mid-1950s onwards. The early 1960s saw the creation of several iconic pop images including Warhol’s Marilyn silks and Lichtenstein’s Wham. The effects of the post-war boom and the use of imagery from popular culture – cartoons, film posters, adverts, TV stills – to celebrate and/or undercut it ripple outwards from the Anglo heartland: what is loving homage in the States (cans and cartoons) becomes mild mockery in England, and turns to satire, scorn and sometimes overtly anti-American feeling, in further flung countries, typified by French artist Bernard Rancillac‘s savege At Last, a Silhouette Slimmed to the Waist.
  • Pro-revolution pro-communist imagery, texts, works, ideas – power to the people, Maoism, the cult of Che Guevara, exemplified here by Henri Cueco‘s Large Protest, a room-sized sculpture using comic-strip silhouettes cast in metal of figures enacting the glorious Revolution.
  • Anti-communist works voicing rebellion against the dead hand of actual communist regimes in the countries of the Eastern bloc eg Jerzy Zielinski‘s Without Rebellion or Sanja Iveković‘s Sweet violence.
  • Feminism 1960s-style eg Judy ChicagoEvelyne AxellÁngela GarcíaMari ChordàJana Želibská.
  • The Triumph of Youth

1. The Revolution

Revolutionary sentiment was in the air throughout the 1960s, leading up to the strikes and civil disorder across much of Europe which climaxed in ‘events’ in Paris in May 1968, when students joined with striking workers to create a crisis which came close to overthrowing the government. Throughout the 60s and well into the 1970s, the rhetoric of revolution dominated the thinking of many writers and artists.

The wall labels and the audioguide reflect this, echoing the rhetoric of the time and reiterating the rather samey sentiments about this or that ‘radical’ artwork ‘subverting’ or ‘engaging with’ or ‘ironising’ the values of ‘patriarchal’, ‘capitalist’ or ‘consumer’ culture. Each time I read another label about a work which encouraged the overthrow of capitalism, supported the Revolution, heralded the dawn of a classless society, romanticised guerilla fighters and marching strikers and the May 1968 événements, I thought how very, very old all this now sounds and how completely these attitudes and approaches have been vanquished.

In our time, from China to Brazil, hyper-consumer capitalism rules the world, underpinned by the all-powerful banks, implemented by the all-pervading digital culture which most of us have voluntarily signed up to. Instead of overthrowing American corporations, we have welcomed them into every aspect of our lives (Google est.1998, turnover $66 billion, Facebook est. 2004, 1.5 billion users, Twitter 300 million users). The often fading paintings, creaking sculptures and flickery videos on display here come from a distant time when people thought there was an alternative to the finance capitalism and all-encompassing American corporations which now dominate our lives.

2. Communist oppression

Looking back, one of the massive contradictions or ironies of the period was that all the radical artists in the West wanted a communist revolution to overthrow beastly American capitalism, while all the dissidents in the East wanted to escape from the stifling straitjacket of inefficient, repressive, brutal and philistine communist regimes to the wonderful freedom of the West.

The exhibition displays works from the two halves of Europe (and the world) next to each other as if they were both the same kind of ‘subversion’ and criticism, but I don’t think they were: the conditions of their production and the mindsets of their producers were drastically different.

Anti-capitalist movements linger on into our day as ineffectual student-style groups like the Occupy movement; ‘third wave’ feminism endures in all sorts of forms; but the struggles of dissident artists and samizdat writers under communist regimes have completely disappeared and it’s hard to now recall what that world was like.

I can discuss feminism with my teenage daughter because she is learning about the exploitation of women at school, I can discuss the power of multinational banks and corporations with my teenage son because he’s got accounts with some of them and reads about their tax avoidance, criminal miss-selling of products etc on a daily basis.

But if I try to explain that when I was growing up all of Eastern Europe was under Russian communist control, and enormous fences topped with barbed wire formed the border between capitalism and communism, that anyone trying to escape over them was blown up by the landmines or shot dead by the guards, that artists and writers who protested against the state were locked up in psychiatric institutions or disappeared into prison camps, they look at me as if I’m mad.

There are plenty of artists from the Eastern bloc in this show – one even has a room dedicated to him, the Romanian Cornel Brudaşcu. But I felt the extremely difficult, often dangerous, conditions of producing any kind of art in the Eastern Bloc could well have justified a room to itself, a space which really tried to recreate the terrible claustrophobia and fear of the time. This could have described and examined the situations in the different countries (Poland, East Germany, Slovakia etc), whose regimes and cultural traditions were often quite different. This would have given much more depth when it came to describing the strategies specific artists adopted to circumvent the censors and the authorities.

Maybe there are the seeds of an entirely different exhibition here: ‘The Art of the Eastern Bloc 1945-90’.

3. Feminism

Feminism, the women’s movement, women’s liberation, is a very big presence in the show, with three of the ten rooms dedicated to women’s issues, women making up about 26 of the 60 or so artists, and a lot, if not all, the women artists, ‘engaging’ one way or another with the problems of gender.

In the 1960s women intellectuals and artists began to rebel against all kinds of constraints society placed on them: against the way advertising used women’s bodies to sell products, against the way society confined women to stereotyped gender roles – having to be ‘the mother’, ‘the good housewife’, ‘the perfect hostess’ and so on – while depriving them of involvement in a great swathe of social activity, from business to politics. Society was dominated by all-male establishments which women challenged in all manner of ways, from the courts to the classroom.

What emerges from this exhibition is that many of the women artists featured here seemed to think that merely being more forthright about the reality of women’s bodies was a kind of ‘subversive’ and liberating act – that if women themselves created, controlled and published images of the female body, it would liberate them from the prison-house of the ‘male gaze’ and assert the autonomy of female sexuality and therefore of the female subject.

For example, according to the wall label, Evelyne Axell (Belgian, 1935-72), thought that ‘Space represented an emancipation site for women’. Her striking work, Valentine, represents Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who on June 16, 1963, became the first woman in space. The helmet taped to the screen represents the space part, the stripper-style silhouette with the fabric rising up off the picture as it comes unzipped to reveal her breasts and pubic hair beneath, represent her female sexuality. She is, according to the commentary, ‘a feminist heroine and a monument to female eroticism’.

Evelyne Axell, Valentine (1966) Valentine 1966 Collection of Philippe Axell Photo: Paul Louis © Evelyne Axell/DACS 2015

Evelyne Axell, Valentine (1966) Collection of Philippe Axell. Photo: Paul Louis. © Evelyne Axell/DACS 2015

I understand celebrating a woman pioneer. I understand and like the helmet tacked to the canvas. But I didn’t so much understand why the outline of a sexy woman whose zipper is coming undone Austen Powers-style is liberating. To me, it conforms to all the sexist stereotypes of the era, precisely the commodification of an absurdly idealised woman-as-sex-object which I thought we were meant to disapprove of.

Fifty years later any sense of irony or empowerment at the display of naked women has surely long vanished. Instead of the ‘subversion’ and ‘irony’ which the commentary and labels attributed to much of this imagery, I just registered lots of female artists depicting the female body, legs, thighs, breasts and a number of vulvas, in photos, silhouettes, realistic or abstract painting, in satirical videos and even – strikingly – in mirrors (see Jana Želibská below).

Presumably, at some point, it dawned on women artists and women more generally, that displaying images of naked or semi-naked women in ‘art’ really just amounts to displaying naked or semi-naked women. The particular audience who view them (‘art lovers’) are just a tiny, statistically insignificant, sub-set of the great naked-women-viewing public, who don’t get the joke. It doesn’t change anything. In fact, surely it’s just another way of packaging and commodifying the female body.

4. Young and old

The exhibition’s achievement in including women artists and foregrounding women’s issues tends to mask another 1960s theme, maybe the theme of the 1960s, so that it goes strangely unremarked. It was the decade of Youth. In all spheres the 1960s saw the rebellion of the young against the old. ‘Hope I die before I get old‘ and ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30‘ were the catch phrases of the time. So for me the striking thing isn’t that there were lots of breasts, bellies, thighs, vulvas, sexy silhouettes and licking lips on show – it is that they are all young, fit and nubile breasts and hips etc.

Dorothée Selz could create a series of photos of herself copying the poses of scantily-clad glamour models from magazines because she herself looks like a model. The outlines of women which dominate Jana Želibská‘s feminist work Kandarya-Mahadeva look like they’re from the title sequence of a James Bond movie.

A lot of the dolly bird nudity on show here doesn’t make much sense if viewed through a feminist paradigm because it seems so obviously self-defeating: but it does make sense if seen as part of the overthrow of the Fat and Old by the Young and Beautiful. In this context, taking off your clothes proves you are on the right side, immediately shows you are on the side of the young and beautiful, man, we’re going to get rid of war and capitalism and all that bourgeois crap, man, and all those creepy sexual hangups our parents had, we’re going to get naked and get high and come together and create world peace.

Thus Evelyne Axell‘s work The Pretty Month of May in which she paints herself naked, is surely a failure if it’s seen as a ‘feminist’ work, seeking to ‘subvert the male gaze’, since all I can see is a young naked woman whose patch of black pubic hair deliberately emphasises her sexuality. But it does make sense if we recapture the spirit of 1968 and see it as a typical gesture of openness and honesty and frankness about sexual pleasure, all of which (at the time) put her on the side of the angels against the stuffy, repressive older generation.

(For the attitude to parents, to businessmen, to accountants in bowler hats, see The Beatles track The Piggies (‘Everywhere there’s little piggies, leading piggy lives/You can see them out to dinner with their piggy wives.’). For the attitude of the cool sexual revolutionaries, listen to Come Together, which ends, as so many songs from this time, in a simulated orgasm. The orgasm was a political gesture, symbolising the overthrow of capitalism/the old/the bourgeoisie and all their controlling repression of sexuality, which should be free and unfettered, shared and liberating.)

5. The missing black artists

The three women curators have included lots of women artists and lengthy explanations of women’s issues throughout. This is a striking achievement and an enjoyable introduction to many artists who were new to me. In fact, all the works I liked best were by women artists eg Judy ChicagoEvelyne AxellDorothée SelzEulàlia Grau to name a few.

But towards the end of the show I realised I hadn’t seen a single black Pop artist. Maybe there weren’t any. And I don’t think there was a single artist from Africa, 10% of the global population in 1970, in a show which is meant to be about global art. a) In the industrialised West, especially America, were there really no black artists who could have been included? b) Was there really no African art which could have been included, especially considering this period saw a large number of independence struggles/civil wars across the continent which would surely have fit into the Mao and Che-themed revolution sections?

Fun

If all this sounds a bit earnest, it is and the wall labels do tend to be full of ‘issues’ and ‘concerns’.

But most of the works themselves are lots of fun – bright, confident, experimental, exuberant – men and women from around the world playing with a western idiom and transmuting it for their own purposes. Some pieces seemed to me weak (I didn’t like the folk art room, the works of Beatriz GonzálezParviz Tanavoli or Raúl Martinez – details below – seemed to me drab and dull); lots of others are great or great fun, for example, the strikingly clear and bold ‘American interiors’ of Icelandic artist Erró – American Interior 1; and much I couldn’t quite decide what I thought, leaving me puzzled or thoughtful. Altogether there is plenty here to discuss and mull over.

Some reviews have criticised the curators’ decision to paint the walls of each room bright primary colours, but I thought it was funky and accurately reflects the dayglo, plastic world of Pop: it is entirely fitting that the final room is completely covered in a tongue-in-cheek ‘subversion’ of consumer capitalism, Le Vache Qui Rit wallpaper by Thomas Bayrle, made up of multiple copies of the famous cheese logo. As subversion it scores 0 – as funky wallpaper, 10.

And then the shop…

And if you had any lingering doubt about art’s complete inability to change society, you emerge from the last room (‘Consuming Pop’, full of works ‘subverting’ consumer capitalism) into the exhibition shop! Here you can purchase a whole range of desirable consumer products – Pop mugs, Pop posters, Pop tea towels, Pop books, Pop cushions, Pop scarves and Pop bags – to adorn your dream home and impress your friends.


List of artworks

Room 1 – Introduction

Room 2 – Eulàlia Grau (1946-, Spain) and Joe Tilson (English)

Room 3 – Pop politics

Room 4 – Cornel Brudaşcu (1937-, Romania)

It was good to have a room devoted to the enormous subject of art in the communist bloc but I’m not sure the four or five big paintings by Brudaşcu could quite carry that much burden. They are coloured solarisations of images mined from pop sources eg newspaper photos, album covers.

Room 5 – Pop at home

Teresa Burga, Cubes (1968) Private Collection Photo: Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Thumm © Teresa Burga

Teresa Burga, Cubes (1968), Private Collection. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Thumm. © Teresa Burga

Room 6 – Pop bodies

Room 7 – devoted to one work by Jana Želibská (1941-, Czechoslovakia)

  • Kandarya-Mahadeva – based on a temple in India, consists of a massive rectangular pillar constructed of 48 panels, each one depicting the silhouette of a woman’s body in a Bond girl pose, clad in the outline of skimpy bra and panties. BUT the subversive thing is that at the crotch of each woman is embedded a mirror! Ha, gotcha, male gaze! According to the audioguide, the mirrors ‘virtually put a woman’s sexuality right in your face!!!’ Take that, male chauvinist pigs!!
  • The room itself is lined with swags of orange and white paper flowers and the walls painted with enormous baby pink silhouettes of naked women also with big mirrors in the crotch.

I like breasts and vulvas as much as the next man but by this stage I’d seen quite a few, and occasionally it’s nice to think about something else, so it was a relief to walk into a room which was not dominated by images of women’s bodies.

Room 8 – Pop crowd

Room 9 – Folk Pop

Room 10- Consuming Pop

All the walls of this room are covered with the Le Vache Qui Rit wallpaper by Thomas Bayrle. That’s sticking it to international brands! I wonder if Vache qui rit ever approached him to use it.

  • Boris Bućan (1947-, Croatia) Bućan Art – a series of images spelling ART in the styles of various corporate brands. It ‘denounces consumerism and global brands’. a) nice idea, quite funny, though zero impact on brands (unless they rip the idea off for publicity) b) note the Vache qui rit wallpaper in the background.
  • Sanja Iveković (1949-, Croatia) Sweet violence (1974) This five-minute, black-and-white video stitched together adverts from communist Yugoslavia and superimposed prison bars over them, a brave thing to do at the time.
  • Toshio Matsumoto (1932-, Japan) Mona Lisa, experimental 3-minute video using then-revolutionary techniques to phase and overcolour the image.

The final taboo

Trawling through the biographies to create the list above, I came across several women artists saying, sadly and alas, that their work ‘subverting the patriarchy’ and ‘exploring issues of gender and femininity’ are just as relevant – as necessary – today as they were 50 years ago. The rather tiresome quote from Einstein comes to mind: ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’

If some of the women artists ‘exploring issues’ around the ‘representation of sexuality and eroticism within a social context’ genuinely think little has changed in 50 years, maybe they should consider changing their tactics. Or consider that there might be some kind of biological basis for the social structures and attitudes they have spent 50 years failing to alter.

Their comments tie up with one of the main learnings from the show, which is the complete failure of all the revolutionary hopes of the majority of the artists. Capitalism wasn’t overthrown. It has a stronger, more pervasive grip on all aspects of our lives than ever before. Everything is being monetised.

Which prompts a further uncomfortable thought: maybe the ultimate taboo in art is not (as one of the wall labels asserts) creating images of the vulva, or of the penis or of shit (Gilbert and George have made some very nice images of shit) or any other bodily parts or functions, come to that.

Maybe the ultimate taboo, the dirty little secret that artists and curators dare not mention, is that art subverts nothing. You can assert that it ‘questions’ and ‘engages with’ and ‘interrogates’ whatever you fancy, till the cows come home – the result is nothing. Nothing except more exhibitions, more commentaries and more audioguides, more subject matter for the ever-increasing numbers of people doing MAs and PhDs in art criticism. A small clique of art professionals who have a vested interest in believing – or persuading or reassuring themselves – that art plays a critical role in society, and isn’t – as all the evidence suggests, as the Tate shop suggests – just a decorative hobby and shopping opportunity for the well-heeled middle classes.

Could it be that there is nothing ‘revolutionary’ or ‘radical’ about art, not today? Soviet art, communist art, conceptual art, dada, surrealism, stuckist art, shit art, minimal art, heads made of blood and handprints of child murderers, piles of bricks and sharks cut in half, all these were done years ago, some over a century ago.

Instead, the audio commentary and wall labels of this show come close to proving that art and art criticism today merely play with ageing tropes of ‘revolutionary’ politics or feminist ‘subversion’, talking a special language to itself about ‘engagement’ and ‘questioning’ and ‘situating issues’ and ‘negotiating paradigms’ – while leaving the actual power structures of society, the economic constraints we all live by, the concentration of money into fewer and fewer hands, the infiltration of every aspect of our lives by surveilling digital technology, the indignities of ageing, the difficulties of earning enough money to pay for rent, heat and food, completely unchanged.

In the commentary of this and other shows about twentieth century art, I get the feeling the curators are nostalgic for a time when art did have some kind of impact, when artists really did suffer for their art, when they genuinely risked being arrest and imprisoned, when art genuinely did ‘subvert’ various forms of authority, patriarchy, western consumerism etc.

Now you’d be hard pressed to create a work of art which won’t be bought up by Russian billionaires or sovereign wealth funds looking to diversify their investment portfolio. Very difficult to escape form the process whereby everything becomes an investment, everything is monetised.

Art’s irrelevance

According to a press release, all the Tate locations had a total 7 million visitors in 2013/14. This is an extremely impressive achievement – especially the standout fact that Tate Modern is the most visited gallery of modern art in the world. Respect to the enormous achievements of Tate’s leadership and staff in reaching out to more people than ever before.

But I also read in today’s paper that Snapchat reported 6 billion views of videos on its digital platform, every day. It is sneaking up on Facebook which claims some 8 billion video views per day, and that some 500 million people use its video app every day. When I told my teenage son, he said had I read Pornhub’s results (much shared among his mates, apparently)?

Pornhub claims to be the world’s number one porn website and allows users to upload and share pornographic videos. In 2014 about 50 gigabytes of porn video was uploaded to the site every second. Over the course of the year 78.9 billion videos were viewed, 11 for every man, woman and child on the planet. The top two search terms were ‘teen’ and ‘lesbian’.

I love art and will continue to go to art galleries and support artists. I love the space, the quiet, the opportunity to admire beauty and reflect on interesting ideas. But when you situate traditional ‘art’ – small paintings and silent sculptures – in the context of this unprecedented tsunami of images, an unparalleled explosion of imagery flooding out of every screen into everyone’s faces all across the planet, the art of all of these artists doesn’t just not seem subversive: statistically, it doesn’t exist. Its impact is immeasurably tiny.

Judy Chicago’s funky car hoods, Jana Želibská’s dolly birds with mirror crotches, Dorothée Selz’s small photos of herself adopting glamour model poses – I like them: they’re funny, attractive to look at, inventive, cheeky, maybe they played their part in changing attitudes for the better. But to imagine that they are subverting anything in our time seems to me the height of self-delusion.

Related links

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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