Friday 19 April 2013

The Batman of Pop Art

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, Tate Modern, London

Screaming fighter planes! Square-jawed heroes! Corny cartoon captions! Yes, hepcats and kittens, it’s Roy Lichtenstein, the Batman of Pop Art. We know his work so well — or think we do. For this exhibition - the most comprehensive one ever devoted to him and the first major retrospective of his work to be staged for over 20 years - has a few surprises in store. What are they?

Born in 1923, Lichtenstein taught art in New York and New Jersey before he leapt to fame as part of the Pop Art boom of the early 1960s (more of that in a moment). Let’s jump straight into action with some of the classic examples we see here of Lichtenstein’s Pop productions. There is ‘Step-On Can with Leg’ (1961) showing two pictures of an elegant, high-heeled female ankle activating the pedal of a waste-bin, a neat combination of style, technological efficiency and cleanliness. ‘Whaam!’(1963) shows an American fighter plane destroying an enemy aircraft in a dogfight, whilst ‘Oh, Jeff… I Love You, Too…But…,’(1964) shows a young girl having an agonized phone conversation with a boyfriend who, one suspects, has come to the end of his romantic shelf life. ‘Portable Radio’ (1962) is a black/grey face-on celebration of this icon of instant, convenient access to popular entertainment. ‘Desk Diary’ (1962) with its scribbled page notes is — with its reference to ‘Chamber of Comm’ — a celebration of business and its mainstay, the networking entrepreneur. ‘Masterpiece’ (1962) shows a girl, with a facial expression appearing to combine love and ambition, telling her male artist friend that fame is imminent. (‘Why, Brad darling, this painting is a masterpiece! My, soon you’ll have all of New York clamouring for your work!’) ‘George Washington’ (1962) shows the first president almost guffawing with pleasure.

But we also see things we might not expect from Lichtenstein, showing quieter forms of work far removed from the slam-dunk exuberant certainties of Pop. ‘Seascape’ (c.1965) shows water reflecting streaky light whilst ‘Sunrise’ (1965) gives us a small red sun radiating sharp yellow rays. There is ‘Brushstroke with Spatter’ (1966) where the spattered paint - which lies between two yellow and black lines — seems to be the result of an artistic accident rather than a repudiation of slickness in favour of an experimental, free splashing of paint in the Abstract Impressionist style of Jackson Pollock. There are pieces of sculpture that have an Art Deco look, such as ‘Modern Sculpture’ (1967) featuring curved metal bars and a mirror (and which have the effect, intentional or otherwise, of bringing to mind upmarket bathroom furniture crying out to be festooned with fluffy towels).

Lichtenstein’s painting ‘Mirror # 1’ (1969) shows it as grey and murky instead of reflecting - as we might have expected it to from his earlier works - some paragon of cheesecake charm or beefcake beauty. ‘Artist’s Studio: The Dance’ (1974) gives us flowing figures reminiscent of Matisse’s picture ‘The Dance’ of 1910: the dancers prance as if they are performing some Dionysian tribal rite. ‘Blue Nude’ (1995) shows a female nude -turning to look at her reflection in a mirror - whose body is partially covered in pointillist-style dots (a technique used by the Neo-Impressionists to give a stronger sense of colour and clarity to the subject of their work), and who seems uncomfortable in her skin. Meanwhile, entering the Classical world, we have ‘Laco3n’ (1988) showing the post-Homeric Trojan prince and priest of Apollo, whose story is told by Virgil in the Aeneid, engaged in frantic, futile combat against entangling serpents.

As well as this calm, reflective - almost brooding— work, Lichtenstein also experimented with what he called Perfect/ Imperfect paintings. These consisted of bright geometric shapes which threatened to - or in some cases did — reach beyond the edge of the canvas. His ‘Imperfect Painting’ (1994) makes us feel the jagged yellow and blue forms almost being physically restrained to prevent their escape. During his military service in the Second World War Lichtenstein, whilst stationed in London prior to embarkation for the North-West European front, bought a book on Chinese painting and African masks, and his series of Chinese-style paintings could have been a late fruit of that purchase. (If so, it raises a question: should the clichéd, composite image of American serviceman in wartime Britain as being ‘over paid, over sexed and over here‘, dispensing candy and nylons to the ration- bound British, be modified to include those who used their time in Britain to absorb the culture available in its concert halls and galleries?) From that series we see ‘Landscape in Fog‘ (1996), showings shrouded grey jagged mountains.

So the content of this exhibition is not only impressively wide-ranging, much more than we might expect from an exponent of Pop Art and its exuberant spirit. It suggests — rightly or wrongly - that there were two main phases to Lichtenstein’s artistic career. If this was the case, why should that have been? The answer may lie in the origins of Pop Art itself. For Pop Art celebrated, well, the art of what was popular from the 1950s (even though, in America, it would only come to fruition in the following decade) — comic strips, advertising imagery, a time when America was still mindful of its military successes against Nazi Germany and Japan and which were regularly celebrated by Hollywood, as well as experiencing a boom in prosperity after the hardships of the Depression. Few people shared the concerns of President Eisenhower over the influence of what he referred-to as the country’s military-industrial complex: most prosperous Americans were more interested in obtaining the latest white goods or fin-tailed cars (just the thing for the drive-in movies). Whilst some theorists attempted to explain Pop Art as a form of abstract art involving the signifiers of commercialism — thus sanctifying Pop and removing from it any taint of popular taste — its success, arguably, lay in the fact that its content was recognizable. It appealed to ordinary people and — once they’d been given a theory to hold about it in order to avoid the dread charge of liking popular taste - critics alike. With the work of Lichtenstein, Warhol and other Pop artists, it was a relief for all concerned to have something with clear subject- matter after the splashings of lack the Dripper and his fellow Abstract Impressionists.

But the optimism which lay behind Pop Art would soon take a battering. The assassination in 1963 of JFK can be seen as precursor to the end of that optimism. The military humiliations of Vietnam and the economic hardships of the early seventies completed the process. Whilst Lichtenstein may have laid aside his Pop style in order to experiment with other forms of painting, was he also, subconsciously, influenced by these major dents in American confidence? Did he feel that Pop was no longer an appropriate medium for artistic expression, representing a sort of optimistic spirit whose time had passed? Despite the surface resurrection of American morale during the Reagan years — think of glitzy television shows like Dallas and Dynasty or films like An Oficer and a Gentleman — Lichtenstein’s work retained this spirit of restraint (which he combined, for the most part, with the bright colours of his earlier work) until his death in 1997.

Whatever interpretation we place on Lichtenstein’s approach to his work, it is chiefly the early Pop material for which he remains famous and it makes the major visual impact in this exhibition. It leaves us with contradictory emotions. On the one hand, it seems dated —the colourful art showing an abundance of plenty which seemed shiny and new in the 1950s is now something we take for granted: ever-more sophisticated technology ensures that our visual experience is saturated with it, and we can imagine what a joyful time Lichtenstein and, even more, Warhol, would have had with disseminating their work at the click of a mouse. At the same time, it is a simple, touchingly naive elegy for an era whose optimism seems eclipsed by the unsettling economic and political realities and challenges of today’s world.

Till 27 May

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