The American Dream: pop to the present @ the British Museum

American prints

The first thing to emphasise is that this is an exhibition of American prints, so it might have been more accurate and factual to have titled the show ‘American Prints’ rather than ‘The American Dream’. The latter title leaves open the possibility that the exhibition includes oil paintings or sculptures, the whole range of artistic media. It also suggests that the selection will be somehow presenting a historical or political or cultural analysis of ‘the American Dream’- and, when it increasingly does this, in the second half of the exhibition, it introduces political and social issues which, I think a) increasingly distract from the art as art and b) are surprisingly limited.

The title, these later political galleries, and even the introduction by exhibition sponsor, the global financial services firm Morgan Stanley – for whom the show ‘charts the story of the modern Western world as seen through the lens of the United States’ – are designed to stimulate the visitor to reflect on the post-war history of America. I have expressed my views in a separate blog post; this post focuses on just the prints themselves.

The American Dream: pop to the present

The British Museum has one of the biggest collections of prints in the world, with more than two million in storage. This huge, beautifully laid out and imaginatively designed exhibition sets out to showcase:

‘the Museum’s outstanding collection of modern and contemporary American prints for the first time… shown with important works from museums and private collections around the world.’

Flags I. Colour screenprint (1973) by Jasper Johns. Gift of Johanna and Leslie Garfield, on loan from the American Friends of the British Museum. © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2016. © Tom Powel Imaging

Flags I (1973). Colour screenprint by Jasper Johns. Gift of Johanna and Leslie Garfield, on loan from the American Friends of the British Museum. © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2016. © Tom Powel Imaging

The American boom in prints

The exhibition covers American prints from the last 60 years. Why that particular period?

A revolutionary and enduring change in the production, marketing and consumption of prints took place in the 1960s. Inspired by the monumental, bold and eye-catching imagery of post-war America, a young generation of artists took to printmaking with enthusiasm, putting it on an equal footing with painting and sculpture and matching their size, bright colour and impact. Meanwhile, the growth of an affluent middle class in urban America also opened a booming market for prints that was seized upon by enterprising publishers, print workshops and artists. Artists were encouraged to create prints in state-of-the-art workshops newly established on both the East and West Coast. The widening audience for prints also attracted some to use the medium as a means for expressing pungent, sometimes dissenting, opinions on the great social issues of the day.

It is also relevant that this exhibition is a sequel. In 2008 the Museum held a big show titled The American Scene: Prints from Hopper to Pollock, which ended at the turn of the Sixties i.e. where this one begins. Both shows were curated by Stephen Coppel, the Museum’s curator of modern prints and drawings.

This exhibition consists of twelve rooms, which take us through American prints from the early 1960s to the present day, each room focusing on a particular group of artists, periods or themes – Pop in the first few rooms, minimalism half way through, the ’80s, and then onto contemporary issues like race, AIDS and feminism in the final three.

Gumball Machine, colour linocut (1970) by Wayne Thiebaud © Wayne Thiebaud/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2016

Gumball Machine (1970) colour linocut by Wayne Thiebaud © Wayne Thiebaud/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2016

The process of print-making

Wall labels for separate eras (the 1990s) or groups (the Minimalists) or for individual works, shed light on the multifarious techniques of print making – etching, lithographs, working with stone, wood or silk – along with the micro-histories of the many workshops and businesses set up across the States to cater to the growing market for prints, like Universal Limited Editions in Long Island (est. 1957) and Gemini set up in Los Angeles in 1966.

Half-way through the show there are two big video installations showing artists actually creating prints, including Andy Warhol working with silk prints and Ed Ruscha creating his Dead End signs. A later video includes interview snippets with Lichtenstein, Ruscha, Chuck Close, Kiki Smith, Glenn Ligon and Julie Mehreti.

Interesting though these were, they were really snippets from longer films and so, for example, although I saw Warhol and an assistant running a wooden block up and down a print presumably to press paint into the paper, I still didn’t understand how a silk screen print is made and had to look it up on YouTube.

Standard Station. Colour screenprint (1966) by Edward Ruscha. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. © Ed Ruscha. Reproduced by permission of the artist

Standard Station (1966) Colour screenprint by Edward Ruscha. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. © Ed Ruscha. Reproduced by permission of the artist

The exhibition room-by-room

Room 1 Pop art

The early 1960s saw an explosion of artists incorporating the imagery of consumer culture, adverts, movie posters, newspaper photos and so on, adapted whole, or cut up into collages, or remodelled into huge spoof cartoons. The first room (and arguably the entire exhibition) is dominated by Andy Warhol and his genius for identifying stand-out iconic imagery. One wall is covered by ten enormous silk prints of Marilyn Monroe (1962), plus the original poster for the 1953 movie Niagara, which inspired them.

Opposite them is a set of ten prints depicting the electric chair (1964) along with the source photo.

Lining another wall is an enormous 86-foot-long print by James Rosenquist called F-111 (1964), a characteristic hymn to gleaming chrome technology and itself an epitome of America’s super-confidence: Bigger. Brighter. Shinier.

There’s a so-so print of Claes Oldenburg’s Three way plug (1970) beside which is hanging the only non-print in the show, an enormous wooden sculpture of the same object suspended from the ceiling.

It’s the 1960s, pre-feminism and awash with kitsch ads and comics from the 1950s, so American babes can be celebrated without guilt, as in Tom Wesselman’s series The Great American Nude (1963). Work on numerous iterations of  this image took up most of Wesselman’s 60s, in fact the final, hundredth, version was only published in 1973. It is odd that an exhibition which (later on) features feminist artists being very cross about the sexual objectification of women opens with such a glaring example.

Next to them is king of comic art, Roy Lichtenstein’s Reverie (1965) hanging alongside is one of his canonical action cartoon-paintings, Sweet Dreams, Baby! (1965).


The obvious thing about prints is not only that they can be run off in large numbers to be sold and owned by a potentially limitless audience – but, as Warhol above all else discovered – they can also be repeated with deliberate variations, in detail, design or colouring.

Warhol dominates the field with his series of iconic silk prints of Marilyn, Mao, Elvis and so on, but it is striking the way so many of the other artists shown here, right up to the present day, conceived of their prints as parts of sets or series on specific topics, themes, images, issues. This is not possible in painting; it is an artistic option only really available in print.

What is it about these repetitions and iterations, – something unnerving, subverting, and yet mythologising at the same time? All those Marilyns become shallower and shallower and yet simultaneously more and more powerful. Ditto Jasper John’s obsessive reiterations of the American flag or Jim Dine’s multiple series of household tools – Repetition equals… what? Maybe we need a perceptual psychologist to explain what they do to the brain.

Room 2 Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Jim Dine

Jasper Johns comes from an earlier generation than Warhol. He began his blank-faced paintings of humdrum objects in the 1950s. He repeatedly uses motifs of numbers, letters and words, generally working in large sets or series which showcase all the types of variations which print-making produces: there are so many variations on Flags I and Flags II it’s difficult to decide which is the ‘key’ example (see first illustration, above). There are also sets devoted to: Grey alphabetNumbers, Targets.

There’s something about the blankness and the obviousness of these subjects which suggests a kind of zombieness of American culture. I like that Johns has rarely if ever commented or interpreted his work. There it is. The flag. Letters. Numbers imposed over each other (the Colour Numeral series). Make of them what you will. Johns started in the mid-50s and is represented well into the ’80s.

Robert Rauschenberg was recently given a massive and hugely enjoyable retrospective at Tate Modern. His prints are as great as everything else he did. Here he is represented by some works from his Stoned moon series, a set of 33 lithographs which he created in response to the manned Apollo flights to the moon (Rauschenberg was actually invited by NASA to be the official Moonshot artist). Make a collage of press photos and technical diagrams. Run off prints of it using different colour washes. Voila!

Sky garden at 2.2 metres tall broke the record for the largest hand-printed lithograph of the day. Bigger. Brighter. Shinier.

Sky Garden from Stoned Moon. Colour lithograph and screenprint (1969) by Robert Rauschenberg © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, New York

Sky Garden from the Stoned Moon series (1969) Colour lithograph and screenprint by Robert Rauschenberg © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, New York

One of the Stoned moon variations is Sky rite – I like the blurred, half-obliterated image of the NASA technician pointing to the skies. The selection, the arrangement and then the partial obliteration of these bold clear photos and designs by pencil lines and colour washes say so much – about dynamism and thrusting confidence, but at the same time somehow about those things being eclipsed and washed out – so much that is difficult to put into words – as art should. Nearby was one of another large series based on X-rays of his own body, Booster (1967).

Jim Dine seems to have rejected big grandiose subjects and concentrated on the here and now, banal household objects, a kind of artistic William Carlos Williams. I liked his series about Paintbrushes (1973), showing different numbers of paintbrushes lined up neatly, but with different amounts of sketching, light and shade in each one. Here we had examples of the ‘first state’, ‘third state’ and ‘sixth state’, presumably as the image became more worked over, scarred and scratched and busy. The more you look, the more beguiling they become.

Given the same treatment are images of a saw, hammers – each becoming strangely luminous, charged with meaning – or just beautiful by virtue of the deadpan depiction of their wonderful functional design. Nearby is one of the extensive series he made of his own dressing gown (1975), for me redolent of the cocaine and rock star 1970s. Why not?

There is a kind of wonderful emptiness about so many of these images. They shoot through the retina and flood the image-recognition centres of the brain as a MacDonald’s hamburger floods the hungry palate, pushing all the big obvious buttons. Lots of fun, but taken together, somehow hinting at a huge emptiness, at the isolated unhappiness which has been the subject of so much American fiction these last 60 years.

Room 4 Made in California – the West Coast experience

The next room swaps focus to the West Coast, to the California of swimming pools and endless sunshine.

  • Claes Oldenburg Profile airflow (1969) an intriguing three-dimensional relief print made of polyurethane.
  • Ed Ruscha – an artist of the archetypal post-War west, with its highways, gas stations and huge signs – Every building on Sunset Strip (1966), Hollywood (1968), Sin (1970), Whiskers (1972) Made in California (1971)
  • Wayne Thiebaud – Careful etchings and linotypes of colourful fatty American sweets –Gumball machine (see above), Boston cremes (1962), Suckers state (1968)
  • Robert Bechtle’s quiet depictions of California suburbs, mostly empty of people with only a parked car suggesting human presence – Burbank Street – Alameda 1 (1967), 60 T-Bird (1967), Alamedo Carrera (1967) cars which make me think of the movies Bullitt (1968) or Dirty Harry (1971)
  • Bruce Naumann – a harsh negative vision obsessed with the power of words, not phrases, just potent words, arranged forwards and backwards, often in slanting italics, often in harsh black and white – Clear vision (1973), Malice (1980)

Talk on the wall label of clear blue skies and swimming pools made me think of David Hockney and, turning a corner, who do we find! Hockney is another great fan of sets and series:

Room 5 Persistence of abstraction – gestural and hard-edge 1960s-1970s

Pop was seen by many as an anecdote to the angst and bleak psychologising of 1950s Abstract Expressionism (as recently displayed at a major retrospective at the Royal Academy). This room shows how some print-makers continued, despite the shiny externalities of real life celebrated by Pop, to experiment with abstract shapes, and blurs and swirls of paint.

Walking into this room after the previous four was like walking into the screening of some European art movie after spending a couple of hours watching Star Wars and chomping on popcorn. It required quite a change of pace to calm down from the big bright, super-colourful and, above all, instantly recognisable imagery of Pop, to get back to grips with more abstract experiments in colour, texture and design.

Room 6 Minimalism and conceptualism from the 1970s

The sobering up process continued in the next room with a sample of the very black and white, minimalist aesthetic which came in in the early 1970s, as a reaction against everything bright and shiny. I very much like the sculptures of American minimalism – many of which can be seen in Tate Modern – but my palette had been so spoilt by the Mickey Mouse pleasures of the preceding rooms that I found it hard to tune in to their subtleties.

Room 7 Photorealism – Portraits and landscapes

Apparently there was a revival in the 1970s of the deeply unfashionable genre of portraiture.

Of the landscapes I liked Craig McPherson’s Yankee stadium at night (1983), a powerful and absorbing image because it is in fact so entirely figurative. Best things in the room were prints of the hyper-realistic / ‘photorealistic’ paintings done by Richard Estes, from his Urban Landscape series.

Room 8 The figure reasserted

Had the figure ever been away? Well figurative depictions of the human form were grouped together in this room, though often in a stilted or deliberately naive style – maybe a refreshing change after the blank coolness of ’70s minimalism.

The standout images were to almost life size prints wonderfully capturing a fully-clothed man and woman in the act of dancing, writhing, jiving.

  • Robert Longo – Eric (1985) from the Men in the cities series. Cindy (2002)

Room 9 – Politics and dissent

Once again Warhol trumps the room with his fabulous silk prints of Nixon and Mao (1972), alongside the more subdued print of Jackie II (1966).

Vote McGovern, Colour screenprint (1972) by Andy Warhol © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

Vote McGovern (1972) Colour screenprint by Andy Warhol © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

Note these dates, though. This is very old protest. Johnson? Nixon? Beautiful, striking, imaginative but – old.

The Politics and dissent room segues into a room about AIDS which was first clinically observed in the United States in 1981. The 1980s was, therefore, among other things, the decade in which medical investigation of the condition went hand in hand with growing public awareness, with attempts to overcome the stigma of illness and then lobby for more research to be done. This room features prints by gay artists responding to the crisis.

Room 10 Feminism, gender and the body

Big Daddy with Hats (1971) Colour screenprint by May Stevens © May Stevens. Reproduced by permission of the artist and Mary Ryan Gallery, New York

Big Daddy with Hats (1971) Colour screenprint by May Stevens © May Stevens. Reproduced by permission of the artist and Mary Ryan Gallery, New York

I found a lot of this work a little understated, almost amateurish. The correctness of your beliefs or vehemency of your faith don’t of themselves make for particularly interesting art.

For a palette spoiled by big shiny consumer images, the most immediate impact in this room was made by the sharp, advert-based images of the Guerrilla Girls.

If Pop in the ’60s cut up and pasted cheesy adverts, the GGs in the ’80s create what amount to striking ads in their own right. They’re still very active.

Room 11 Race and identity – Unresolved histories

The inclusion of a room of Feminist art and a room of Black art gives the visitor a strong sense of the academic background of the exhibition’s organisers. I’m not saying they’re not big issues, but the inclusion of these issues, and only these issues, at the end of the show reflects their dominance of academic life and university campuses and doesn’t necessarily reflect the major social, economic and technological upheavals of the last 30 years.

Stowage. Woodcut on Japanese paper (1997) by Willie Cole © Willie Cole. Reproduced by permission of the artist courtesy of Alexander and Bonin Publishing, New York

Stowage (1997) Woodcut on Japanese paper by Willie Cole © Willie Cole. Reproduced by permission of the artist courtesy of Alexander and Bonin Publishing, New York

In this room the standout artist for me is Kara Walker, with her stylised black and white silhouettes of slave figures. I’ve seen an exhibition of these before, so there’s an element of recognition and familiarity in my positive response. Coming towards the end of a rather exhausting exhibition featuring over 200 images, the clarity, purity of line and savage humour of her work sets her apart.

But it is also capable of a strange dreamlike quality, fantasias of colour, exploitation, journeying across the seas, converting history into eerie illustrations for a very grown-up set of fairy tales.

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

Room 12 Signs of the times

The wall label in this last room mentions 9/11 and the financial crash of 2008 but addresses neither of them directly. Instead the 12 prints in this concluding section comment obliquely on the sense of America’s economic decline, or at least the decline of traditional industries and jobs. Commercial collapse, bankruptcy and anomie. The unwinding of America.

It is a depressing conclusion, but it follows logically from the AIDS, feminism and black rooms. Somewhere in the 1980s America began to hate itself and look for someone to blame. A lot of the AIDS images are angry at the slowness of medical research into the condition, the stigma attached to it, Reaganite persecution of gays, the slander of calling it a ‘gay plague’. The feminist room is full of anger at the Patriarchy, at the countless ways women have been suppressed, silenced, objectified and abused. And the black room is also angry at the grotesque abomination of slavery, the slave trade, the systematic abuse of millions of men, women and children bought and sold like cattle, worked to death, raped and murdered and ongoing discrimination against people of colour, police shootings of black men, the huge black prison population.

A sympathetic reading of these three rooms leaves the visitor shaken and exhausted, and this final small downbeat section matches your mood with images of an America which has somehow reached the end of the line. The breezy confidence of the 1960s has evaporated. Gays, blacks and women are just the most vocal of the groups attacking a culture which seems on its knees.

The most haunting image, deliberately and carefully chosen to end the show, is Ed Ruscha’s reprise of his 1966 brilliant iconic image of a gas station – now redone in pure white, emptied out, a ghost of itself. In fact one of the stylish ‘windows’ cut here and there into the exhibition walls, means you can look directly back into the earlier gallery where the 1966 print is hanging and compare the two.

The hollowing out, the blanking of Ghost station suggests that the chrome-plated consumer paradise depicted in thePop art of the 1960s has become a drug-addicted, derelict shell of itself.

What happened? Where did it all go wrong? And if Donald Trump is the answer, what on earth is the question?

Post script 1: The elephant in the room

This is a panoramic and exciting exhibition which brings together many of the biggest names in American art, alongside lesser-known but just as interesting artists, to give a vivid sense of the boundless experimentation and creativity of this huge country. Above all it successfully stakes a claim for print as a medium as creative, varied and beautiful as painting or sculpture. You exit the show, mind ringing with all kinds of images, ideas, issues and reflections.

For me, at the end, one big question stood out. The exhibition’s publicity encourages us to combine the art with history and politics, to experience post-war American history through these artists’ eyes. Which is why it seems to me extraordinary that there is only one throwaway mention of the single most important event in 21st century American history – 9/11.

From this traumatic attack stem the War on Terror, the Patriot Act, the war in Afghanistan and the ill-fated invasion of Iraq, the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, official defence of waterboarding and torture at Guantanamo Bay, further acts of domestic terrorism, along with armed interventions in Libya and Syria and the ever-increasing use of drone attacks.

All these events have contributed hugely to the sense contemporary America has of being embattled and threatened by forces it doesn’t understand and can’t contain, to the tide of anxiety and xenophobia which helped Donald Trump to the White House. It seems to me extraordinary that an exhibition which at least in part claims to survey American history ‘to the present’ omits this seismic subject.

Surely there are American artists making prints on these subjects – 9/11 is burned into our minds as a set of horrible images, not to mention iconic images of Osama bin Laden’s face, Saddam’s statue being pulled down, the torture victims in Abu Ghraib, drones cruising the skies. I can’t believe that scores of American artists haven’t addressed these issues and haven’t mined these images for creative purposes.

Why aren’t they here?

Postscript 2: Native Americans

The feminist artists complain about the oppression of women in general, of women artists in particular, of the suppression of their stories and experiences by the Patriarchy, which women artists are only now bravely telling. The black artists complain about the oppression of Africans, the brutality meted out to slaves, the suppression of their narratives and stories, which black artists are only now exploring.

My son asked me, So where’s the room for Native Americans? There isn’t one. Why not? If there aren’t many Native American artists, why not? Isn’t that a bit of an issue? And if there truly aren’t many Native American artists, doesn’t that mean that any history of America told through its art will inevitably privilege European forms of expression and necessarily exclude the voice and experience of its original inhabitants?

In between the endless artworks, books, documentaries and conferences about gender and the body or slavery and the black experience – just possibly the occasional mention should be made of the original inhabitants of this huge continent who were almost exterminated and the survivors shunted to the edge of American life and for so long written out of the American story. And – in this exhibition at least – are still written out of the American story.

No Native American artists? No Native American print makers? No Native American narratives or stories? Not even one solitary mention of them? No.

Gays, blacks, women – these are the academically-approved minorities, the groups which have their own political movements and voices, novels, plays, movies, Hollywood stars lobbying for them, TV shows about them, and art and criticism and exhibitions and academic papers and dissertations and conferences and books devoted to them, which are, in other words, part of the state-approved cultural discourse.

As for the original victims of European colonisation? Silence. Absence. Invisibility…

The video

Related links

Newspaper reviews of The American Dream

Reviews of other British Museum shows

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.


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.)


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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