Lichtenstein: A Retrospective @ Tate Modern

Roy Lichtenstein is considered to be one of the pop art pioneers in America and his iconic work is well recognised all round the globe. Tate Modern presents a major blockbuster retrospective that is expected to attract over half a million visitors by the end of May. Spanning across 15 rooms, the exhibition comprises of some 150 works covering most of the artist’s career, between the early 1960s up until his death in 1997.

Lichtenstein is mostly known for the employment of cartoons and comic strips that he introduced from his early career; a non original subject matter nevertheless imbued with his own characteristically distinguishing technical skill that gradually led to a personal style and signature. “Look Mickey” (1961) was his first experimentation with cartoon characters.

The isolation of scenes from comics which for some reason tickled his fancy and their reproduction into grander scale with the enhancement of vivid colouring, either with brushstrokes or with the Ben-Day dot (named after its inventor Benjamin Dot) followed him pretty much in the entirety of his career.

By utilising popular iconographical and thematological clichés of the current American era such as narratives about war and romance, Lichtenstein’s work soon became a trademark in its own right completed with his characters’ thought and speech bubbles. Similarly to Alfred Hitchcock and other Hollywood director preferences of the time, Lichtenstein’s protagonists are attractive blond women involved in trivial emotional situations. The melodrama of “Drowning Girl” (1963) and “Oh Jeff… I love You, Too…But…” (1964) is juxtaposed against the energy of war related cartoons such as “BRATATAT” (1962) and the diptych of ‘WHAAM!” (1963), all displayed in the same room at Tate Modern.

Although Lichtenstein focused greatly on his favourite comic book images, he also attempted to explore other narratives in his later career. His 1980s homages to great modern masters such as Picasso, Matisse, Pollock and Piet Mondrian and his landscape paintings inspired from the Chinese Song dynasty parallels were not totally disengaged from his personal pointillist style and favourite colour scheme. One of the final rooms at Tate is a great selection of his 1990s Nude works, a series of paintings reminiscent of the early Lichtenstein 1960s style, a style that was never really abandoned and, unquestionably, remained a lifetime companion.

Despite the increasing popularity of his work amongst art collectors on an international scale (his paintings still fetch tens of millions in auctions), there has been a controversy around Lichtenstein’s work from as early as the beginning of his career. In 1964, LIFE magazine brutally confronted his art by asking “Is Lichtenstein the worst artist in America?” focusing on what other art critics continuously argue about until today: the ongoing reproduction of pre existing cartoon images and even the revisiting of other artists’ work demonstrate for many a clear lack of originality and a drought of inspiration.

This plagiarism of original art which Lichtenstein never denied brought forward a myriad aspects of American life and succeeded in the immense commercialisation and pronouncement of the 1960s lifestyle. The blown up images employed with high calibre technical skills infused with energy, explosion of colours, and with a distinctive wittiness and sense of humour characterise the main body of his work if not unique, at least phenomenal. The vast popularity of his subject matter that made him synonymous with what pop art is mostly known for today is certainly not coincidental.

Parthenogenesis is a very rare phenomenon in art and the socio-economic situation of the late 1950s America was more than ever a fertile ground suitable for rapid development and inspiration. Lichtenstein was the one who found his inspiration in his contemporary comic books and made a career -and a very good one- out of it by improving and transforming an older form of art. This hybrid and new generation of art echoes the American reality of his time, a mosaic of romance and war memories. And I am pretty convinced that if there hadn’t been Roy Lichtenstein at the right place at the right time someone else would have definitely taken that chance and attempted the very same thing, that being Andy Warhol or somebody else. Kostas Prapoglou