Laura’s little fist punches the Plexiglas. Next she grabs the guard rail, a bungee rope that stretches taught and snaps back wickedly. Woosh! Woosh! Her pink parka swishes and she’s tearing gleefully across the gallery while mother, calling her name, tries to keep up. From the walls come another round of quick-fire utterances - "Whaam! Bratatat! Look Mickey, I’ve hooked a big one!!" - blaring, all caps, onomonopiac thunderclaps. It’s hard to tell who’s kicking up a bigger fuss, Lichtenstein or Laura.
Tate Modern’s retrospective, which had been open for just two days when I visited, was defined by children. Swarms queued up in strollers or holding their parents’ hands. Some carried sketchbooks. It is both absurd and wonderful to attempt an afternoon of "serious" art-scoping when it’s hardly possible to pass a few feet before colliding with a toddler and her pipsqueak cohorts. But somehow, chaos suits.
The show is both a kid-pleaser and an attempt to stretch the public’s perspectives of Lichtenstein beyond his primarily colours. The “retrospective” as a happening tends to take the wide view on an artist’s work, and the Tate’s is the most comprehensive Lichtenstein study every staged, and exhibition that lunges towards the well known and less expected arms of his oeuvre: big paintings, brass sculptures and even a film (he only ever made one).
The grand gesture
Curators Sheena Wagstaff and Iria Candela have done well the achingly likable side of Lichtenstein, namely his momentous replicas of single-frame cells pulled from pulp comic books. The best of them are based on chintzy serials like All American Men of War and Girls Romances, terribly trite and clichéd; travel brochures for a land where women are blonde and men are called Brad. Such works show Lichtenstein hitting his stride: paint layered thickly in a bright and severe palette, figures rimmed in black lines heavy as drag eyeliner, painstakingly applied Benday dots - perfect and round and wonderful to see up close. No honestly, it’s wonderful. The quality of Lichtenstein’s meticularity is downright mesmerising (watch this video). The quiet, thorough artist excelled in his capacity to make such labour intensive art look so horribly simple.
Lichtenstein spent the early sixties graduating from his early abstract expressionist style. Wilfully obtuse ejaculations of the kind spewed forth by Jackson Pollock, Franz Klein and Willem de Kooning were much in vogue throughout the fifties. Lichtenstein dabbled but ultimately diverged, but to say he rejected expressionism entirely is inaccurate. Works like Brushstrokes (1965) and Brushtroke with Spatter (1966) see him riff on the “spontaneous” paint splatter (a la Pollock) by reducing it to a controlled artistic act.
“The brushstroke in painting conveys the sense of the grand gesture,” he once said. “But in my hands, the brushstroke becomes the depiction of a grand gesture.” Word choice, like his style, is precisely measured. To “convey a sense” is to allow room for the self-facing interiority of abstraction. Pop, the movement in which Lichtenstein eventually became a leading figure, has always been the art of “depiction”: the art of the obvious, the universal, the straightforward and the banal.
Through the meat grinder
The recognisability of Pop’s subjects made it both low-brow and extremely likeable. Like the Futurists before them, the Pops took the strangeness of the world as inspiration. An exterior aesthetic of mass production – the first real disposable culture - fuelled a fast emerging coalition that included Warhol, Claes Oldenberg, and Jasper Johns. People went to the galleries and saw themselves, their lives, their kids’ comics and their cleaning products blown-up, glorified, colour injected, starched and tarted and stretched ten foot wide.
The art critic Harold Rosenberg succinctly distilled the Pop remit, in 1966, as “an essential character” that “consists of redoing works of art”. Lichtenstein was as preoccupied with reproduction as Warhol but often gets just half the credit. His experiments in parody and duplication were critical in the post-modern unravelling of art about art. The New Yorker’s Calvin Tomkins wrote of the painter’s ability to “process other art into Lichtensteins” - a charmingly totalitarian process that involved passing his predecessors through “the magic meat grinder of this sovereign ironist. [They] come out looking recognizable but different – so Lichensteinian that your take on the original is permanently altered”.
With rooms devoted to his conterfeits not only of anonymous cartoonists but Monet, Picasso, Matisse and Mondrian, his chameleon-like craft becomes abundantly clear. Critics might call him a copycat, but that seems unfair. Through mimicry he scrutinised the fabric of artifice and perception (not for nothing does his Self Portrait (1978) star an empty shirt with as mirror for a head). Once Lichtensteined, an image became something else altogether - an appropriated original.
In the end
Two of Lichtenstein’s later series close the show - Nudes and Chinese Landscapes, both completed in the years before his death in 1997. The former, an undressing of the women potted in previous comic canvases, is perfectly executed but lacks heart. Lichtenstein ladies are inherently shallow, a mannequin stereotype of femininity with red lips and teary eyes. Clothed and styled, their monotony is ironic - disrobed they feel bland and eerily plastic. The joke becomes a little sad, like a funny old man whistling at teenagers.
Chinese Landscapes, on the other hand, is wholly mature and glorious. A series of over twenty big works based on paintings from the Song dynasty, we see the artist’s signature Benday dots lyrically rephrased. Thick black lines give way to spacious, gradated patterns that suggest – rather than enforce – their subjects. And with characteristic subtly, Lichtenstein's more cerebral concerns wriggly spryly from inside these highly controlled canvases. In an interview at his Long Island studio, just after completing the series in 1996, he mused:
We all have a vague idea of what Chinese landscapes look like – that sense of grandeur the Chinese felt about nature. In my paintings it’s not nature, of course, it’s just dots. But it wasn’t nature when they did it, either. Any painting is so far from the real look. It’s a symbol that reminds you of reality, sometimes...
(Roy Lichtenstein, Masterpiece 1962. Private Collection © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012)
(Roy Lichtenstein, Oh, Jeff…I Love You, Too…But… 1964. Collection Simonyi © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012)
(Roy Lichtenstein, Whaam! 1963. Tate. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012)