Pop art is as popular as ever with an explosion of exhibitions in recent years from Warhol’s Other Voices, Other Rooms at London’s Southbank to Pop Life at the Tate.
It doesn’t seem long since the Hayward Gallery hosted a retrospective of Roy Lichtenstein’s work in 2004.
Together with Andy Warhol and Claus Oldenburg, Lichtenstein is one of the ‘big three’ figures of American Pop Art.
His images are instantly recognisable with their striking, hard lines, featuring everyday people or objects portrayed in a style that appears at first glance to have more to do with advertising than traditional painting.
Now the Tate Modern is showing a major retrospective of this godfather of pop which is perhaps the first truly comprehensive account of the artist’s work since his death.
Being a fan of Lichtenstein, I went along to find out whether it tells us anything new about this influential pop art pioneer.
Pop culture and comics
Roy Lichtenstein broke the mould of art in the early 1960s but can he still cut it today, more than 50 years later?
Pop Art’s crossover into popular culture seems part of our lives these days – I even have an Andy Warhol bag and umbrella – so it’s easy to forget how groundbreaking these artists were in the 1960s.
First impressions of the Tate show are encouraging with two rooms of early works which show Lichtenstein breaking with abstract expressionism and playing with brush stroke paintings in an ironic, knowing way.
His early pop art is fascinating especially his experiments with cartoon images and visual imagery drawn from adverts, newspapers and telephone books.
There’s also early signs of his trademark hand-painted Benday dots, illustrated by his Mirror picture (see above).
Comic strip characters like Donald Duck, Popeye and Mickey Mouse pop up in many early works, which cross the boundary from art into commercial graphics, comic books and entertainment.
I was surprised by Look Mickey, a 1961 comic book-style illustration which breaks conventions and lays down the gauntlet to the old school with its pop characters.
I would have guessed that this was a few years later – it’s a bold and cheeky statement for its times.
Based on a Little Golden Book owned by Lichtenstein’s sons, it is thought to be his first pop painting, which even mimics the dodgy reproduction quality of comic book prints.
One of my favourite early works is Portable Radio (1962) which looks like an advert for an old radio but uses visual trickery to look almost 3-D with the shape of the transistor covering the entire canvas.
Another work, Sponge, shows a pair of disembodied female hands, suggesting the portrayal of women as an extension of a household appliance in America’s consumer society. Even today this resonates with my feelings about my role in the domestic kitchen!
As you move into the classic phase of Lichtenstein’s Pop Art the works become instantly recognisable with a series of iconic pop paintings.
Close-ups of women, Drowning Girl (1963) and Hopelesss (1963) feature characters in various traumatic states and explore melodramatic stories and cliched feminine roles drawn from America’s mass media .
Another room of female nudes, painted in the mid-1990s, are provocative and powerful, mainly as a result of their uncompromising hard lines, large size and erotic nature.
The women look like they’ve leapt out of a pulp fiction paperback or modern film noir with their lush, sexy curves and heightened eroticism.
I’m not sure that feminists would approve entirely but perhaps their presence makes us question the representation of the female form in art and popular culture. Let me know what you think!
Still, part of me was tempted to say ‘put your clothes back on, love’!
Others might see this as yet another example of Lichtenstein playing around with that longstanding artistic form – the nude.
Elsewhere, there’s plenty of controversy whipped up in Lichtenstein’s iconic war paintings which provoke lots of mumblings of ‘I know that one’ from gallery visitors.
There’s the highly-charged Whaam! with its fighter plane destroying the enemy in a dogfight – and the powerful Bratatat in which a male fighter stares uncompromisingly at his target.
Looking at this work with fresh eyes, it’s not just the pop imagery that is striking, it’s Lichtenstein’s technique which wouldn’t look amiss in a technical design studio.
Both are as powerful today as in their own time. They’re still two of my favourite Lichtenstein works in the show.
Art about art
It’s good to be reminded of Lichtenstein’s clever games with art history – I’d forgotten how much he enjoyed paroding and referencing artists from the past, from Picasso and Delacroix to Monet and Mondrian.
One of my favourites from this series of works is Still Life with Goldfish which nods towards Matisse’s Goldfish painting with its coloured blocks.
But here, there’s a strangely ominous golf ball looming in the background behind the goldfish bowl – or is it one of Lichtenstein’s mirrors?
Throughout his career Lichtenstein transformed existing images and revisited art history movements from Cubism to Post-Impressionism.
There’s even a gallery featuring Lichtenstein’s New York bronzes whch draw heavily on his home city’s Art Deco architecture, which allow him to play with geometric shapes in an almost abstract fashion.
Again, Lichtenstein isn’t frightened to rework old styles and give them a modern makeover.
One thing that emerges as you walk around this exhibition is that Lichtenstein is a much more complex artist than he appears on first glance.
There’s a lot of intellectual game playing in his works below the ‘throwaway’, pop art surfaces.
His landscapes and seascapes surprised me most of the works on display in the show.
I was fascinated by Sea Shore, a work painted onto layered sheets of Plexiglass, adding a 3-D quality to this work. It’s quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen by Lichtenstein before – and creates an optical illusion of a shifting, uneasy surface.
In another gallery, his luminous Chinese Landscapes also surprise with their highly stylised but semi-abstract illustrations.
The trademark dots are combined with hints of calligraphy and abstraction which represent a fascinating departure from Lichtenstein’s full-on Pop Art style.
Perhaps Lichtenstein found a new serenity in his own life in these delicate painterly works.
It’s the perfect finale to a splendid exhibition covering every twist and turn in this pop artist’s remarkable journey and proves him to be more than a ‘one trick’ pop pony.
There’s something to satisfy, challenge and excite everybody in the show’s 125 works… from abstract experiments with geometry to Pop Art classics and relatively unknown works such as the Perfect/Imperfect series.
It also reveals that Lichtenstein was a more subversive and playful artist than I’d realised previously.
Take the journey to the Tate Modern and you won’t be disappointed.
About Tate Modern
Lichtenstein: A Retrospective is at the Tate Modern until 27 May 2013.
The nearest Tube stop to Tate Modern is Waterloo or Southwark.
Alternatively catch the RV1 bus from Covent Garden or Waterloo Bridge to the Tate.
Look out for events, talks and film screenings about Lichtenstein and Pop Art running in parallel with the exhibition.
For a double dose of art, catch the Tate to Tate boat from the docks outside of the gallery and head up river to the Tate Britain where there’s the Kurt Schwitters exhibition and the permament collections to take in.
The Tate boat is a great way to see London’s waterfront from the river. It runs around every 40 minutes and takes about 12 minutes to run between the galleries.
Images are by kind permission of Tate Modern.
Copyright – art images are copyright and courtesy of the Estate of Roy Lichtenstein, DACS, National Gallery of Art Washington and The Museum of Modern Art New York.