Originally published on theartsdesk.com on 19 February 2013
Towards the end of Tate Modern’s retrospective of Roy Lichtenstein, there is a small abstract painting, Untitled, 1959, executed just before the artist found himself at the heart of the Pop Art movement. The painting is, by any measure, a failure. It is lurid and fussily composed – an ugly streak of red, blue and yellow terminate in a smudge of black. But in it we detect the desire behind Lichtenstein’s innovative aesthetic achievements: it’s too bold and too vibrant.
It was in 1961 when Lichtenstein found his signature style of mimicking comic book images. By using a method of painting through a perforated metal sheet with a toothbrush, Lichtenstein could finally achieve what his scrappy abstractions failed to do: render bright, bold primaries together on the picture plane. This is no mean feat. His older contemporary Barnett Newman made an entire series of paintings entitled “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?” But it was Lichtenstein, working in comic-book style, who had already emblazoned enormous canvases with unvariegated swathes of primaries licked with black outlines against his mechanical dots. The first room introduces us to Lichtenstein by way of the large primary-coloured “abstracts” that parodied the abstract expressionism that he once practised himself. But rather than coming across as a dry exercise, these show off Lichtenstein as a bold and innovative colourist.
It’s a nice surprise then, to enter an entirely monochrome third room. In here we find the first signs of the playful Lichtenstein: reproducing a gigantic cover of a compositions book, enlarging his dots under a painted magnifying glass. There’s also a picture of a portable radio that has a real strap attached to it. Alka Seltzer, 1966, embodies Lichtenstein at its best. The glass occupies the centre of a uniformly dotted surface making the composition almost symmetrical. The effervescent tablet dives to the bottom of the glass, leaving a wake of curling stream-lines and bubbles. It’s a picture of contradictions: dynamic yet flat and static, strongly evocative yet lifeless. But as with all of the oeuvre, it is, above all else, light. The tablet will fizz to nothing. It’s a banal thing yet Lichtenstein’s talent lies in his unwavering ability to make the banal compelling, to keep things rigorously breezy.
His breakthrough painting, Look Mickey, 1961, is as light as it gets and its themes run through the painter’s career: it conflates high and low culture, it contains text, it’s a joke about seeing and not-seeing and it is, of course, painted entirely in red, yellow and blue. Among the early paintings are a series of curiously monumental images copied from advertisements in which the manicured Caucasian hands of suburban housewives sponge away dirt and spray an aerosol can. A hinged diptych, Step-on Can with Leg, 1961, shows a slender leg – with bowed stiletto and smart gingham skirt – daintily operating a trash can.
The pictures lifted from war and melodrama comics, the work that he’s most famous for, take up a large central room and are backed up with studies and the original comic books. Here we see Lichtenstein at the height of his powers, his technique fully honed. If you look at them long enough the parts disintegrate into abstraction with their bold black lines and flat swathes of vibrant colour. The text – in yellow boxes or oval speech bubbles – serves to pin things together.
The show brings out the innovator in Lichtenstein. Some of his lesser-known works prophesied the big ideas that came in his wake. His parodies of modern masters anticipates the postmodernists of the 1980s, his advertisements and pristine brass sculptures which appropriate the language of art deco interior fittings came almost 20 years before Jeff Koons and his paintings of brushstrokes evoke Gerhard Richter’s later paintings of paintings. You come out of the show feeling that Lichtenstein doesn’t get as much art historical credit as he should. The lesser-known works of the Modern series are startling for their originality and prescience.Modern Sculpture with Velvet Rope, 1968, a two-part sculpture with deco curves and real velvet rope is both witty and elegant.
Lichtenstein’s powers falter, however, when he begins to parody himself and this occurs more frequently after 1968. His works become stylised and knowing, the spots take centre stage. Even his parodies of other artists become too self-conscious. Mechanical hatching and differing densities of dots become new textures in his visual language. Expressionist brushwork also creeps back with mixed results. You wonder if Lichtenstein painted himself into a corner with his technique as he attempts to break out of the restrictions he set for himself.
A monumental Laocoön, 1988, feels like a battle between the abstractionist and the illustrator: thick, spontaneous brushstrokes writhe beside regimented lines, spots and flat pools of black. It just about works, but the later Chinese Landscapes, with their timid free-brushed mists and spindly foliage, fail to touch the exuberance of his comic book and advert images. In one picture, Landscape with a Boat, 1996, a tiny figure at the margin punts a little boat facing a vast vista of black dots. You can’t help but identify that little man with Lichtenstein himself, dwarfed by the motif that has become synonymous with his name.