Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective
The Roy Lichtenstein retrospective at Tate Modern reveals the seriousness behind the Pop artist’s irony, finds Alex Danchev
Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective
Tate Modern, London, 21 February-27 May
Centre Pompidou, Paris, 3 July-4 November
Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97) was the first artist of Pop. In 1961, after 20 years of serious apprenticeship in painting and drawing, barely interrupted by military service in the 69th Infantry Division in France in 1945, he produced a large canvas of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse fishing. It finds its place in the magnificent retrospective at Tate Modern, on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC (a gift from the artist). It resembles a panel from a comic strip, blown up to wall-hanging proportions - a cartoon of a cartoon. This gag contains another gag. Donald’s line has caught his own coat-tails. His speech bubble reads: “Look Mickey, I’ve hooked a big one!!” Mickey is suitably amused.
Look Mickey presaged a new wave. Lichtenstein had found his voice, and he knew it. He separated from his wife. He secured a dealer and a gallery - the hotshot, high-concept Leo Castelli. The following year, 1962, his first one-man show at Castelli caused a sensation among the spattering classes. Max Kozloff wrote a piece in Art International magazine titled “‘Pop’ Culture, Metaphysical Disgust, and the New Vulgarians”, linking Lichtenstein with Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist and others. In no time at all they were featured in Life magazine under the banner “Something New is Cooking”. Lichtenstein had arrived with a bang - not to mention a WHAAM! and a BRATATAT!
In my mind it’s a sort of pseudo-contemplative or mechanical subtlety. I’m not seriously doing a Zen-like salute to the beauty of nature
He had also found his signature style, or trademark: Lichtenstein cooked with dots. Look Mickey was for the most part a traditional oil painting in comic-book disguise, but Mickey’s face was painted differently: it was made up of red dots. At this experimental stage the dots were done with a plastic dog-grooming brush dipped in paint. On close inspection, they look uneven, handmade. Lichtenstein wanted more - or, rather, less. “I want to hide the records of my hand,” as he put it. What he had in mind was colour printing with Benday dots (named after their inventor, Benjamin Day, Jr., son of Benjamin Day, Sr., founder of the New York Sun).
Benday dots allowed illustrators to create the dots themselves, rubbing them directly on to the artwork from ready-made sheets, a little like Letraset. Necessarily, therefore, Benday dots are brash dots - big and bold and crude. En masse, in a kind of colour field, they are at once eye- catching and eye-fooling, which was exactly what Lichtenstein liked about them. First he tried a stencil of his own, made by drilling holes in a thin strip of aluminium, but this still seemed too home-made, or too easily moved, creating unwanted irregularities (see Step-on Can with Leg, 1961). Eventually he settled on a commercial metal screen with staggered rows of holes. Pop Art would be the poorer without the Beckley Perforating Company of New Jersey.
And so he became the master of the artless art of the dot. Dots are to Lichtenstein as “blinks”, or fragments of found quotations, are to Walter Benjamin. He often ruminated on them. “The dots can have a purely decorative meaning, or they can mean an industrial way of extending the colour, or data information, or that the image is a fake,” he told an interviewer in 1970. “I think those are the meanings the dots have taken on, but I’m not really sure if I haven’t made all this up.”
Lichtenstein was not one for theses on philosophy. “The dots are not his,” as Harry Cooper writes in a sprightly essay in the exhibition catalogue: “he can only watch them spread”. Lichtenstein may have been reticent, but he was not devoid of ideas. The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction - Benjamin’s celebrated formulation - was precisely what he was after.
Lichtenstein was, among other things, an ironist. “To draw outlines and colour them in is about as dumb a way of painting as you can imagine,” he observed, late in life, “and you can look at my work and say that’s how it’s done. And up to a point it is. Partly that’s supposed to be ironic. For example, when I did paintings based on Monets I realized everyone would think that Monet was someone I could never do because his work has no outlines and it’s so impressionistic. It’s laden with incredible nuance and a sense of different times of day and it’s just completely different from my art. So, I don’t know, I smiled at the idea of making a mechanical Monet.”
The mechanical Monets are in the show, along with the mechanical Matisses, the mechanical Picassos, the mechanical Braques, and many more: all manner of modern artists are appropriated, recreated and replicated in Lichtenstein’s idiosyncratic idiom. Some will see these transpositions as desecrations, or merely diminutions. Others will smile at the wit on display. Non-Objective I (1964) looks like an authentic Mondrian grid, with dots; Mirror #5 (1971) looks like a Mondrian in the round, the grid squeezed out around the circumference of the canvas - sacrilege or subversion. Self-Portrait (1978) is a head and shoulders where the head has been replaced by a blank mirror, evidently inspired by Magritte, a connection that may well extend further.
Lichtenstein’s reflections on art are an essential part of his oeuvre. Some of the cleverest are not in the show - for example, Reflections on the Scream (1990), a play on Munch’s famous image, which features Popeye’s baby son Swee’Pea, screaming his head off. Whether they are “his ultimate subject”, as the curators seem to claim, is another matter. This retrospective itself suggests otherwise. A room full of the classic comic- book borrowings from All-American Men of War and Girls’ Romances takes the breath away, half a century after they were made. Oh, Jeff…I Love You, Too…But… (1964) is the stuff that dreams are made of, still. The banal sublime is an imperishable part of Pop culture. It is surely fundamental to Lichtenstein’s project.
Less happily, the merely banal is also part of Pop culture. How much of Lichtenstein’s work traffics in that (or panders to that) is perhaps a matter of taste. Here, a large room of late nudes is a surprisingly joyless experience. Mechanical reproduction runs the risk of becoming just that.
“Irony alone never makes a painting,” as Lichtenstein himself remarked. He was in every way a serious artist. Perhaps the most intriguing works in the retrospective are very early and very late - Lichtenstein before Lichtenstein and Lichtenstein after Lichtenstein, as one might say.
The pre-Pop works are scattered throughout the exhibition; they are the very opposite of comic-book. The Last of the Buffalo (1950), for example, is a drawing that whispers fineness of feeling. The post-Pop works culminate in the room of “Chinese Landscapes”, after the stylised paintings of the Song dynasty (AD960-1279). They do not dispense with dots. “In my mind it’s a sort of pseudo-contemplative or mechanical subtlety,” the artist said. “I’m not seriously doing a kind of Zen-like salute to the beauty of nature. It’s really supposed to look like a printed version.” The final irony of Roy Lichtenstein is that his last paintings transcend those claims. Landscape with Philosopher and Landscape with Boat (both 1996) are almost serene. They are Lichtenstein through and through. They are beautiful.
Alex Danchev is professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham. His latest book is Cezanne: A Life (2012).