Tate Modern Review: Lichtenstein – do we need a retrospective?

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In 1964 Life magazine asked whether Roy Lichtenstein, the subject of the Tate Modern’s latest retrospective was “the worst artist in the US”. Fifty years on, Lichtenstein’s iconic style of dots, dashes, speech bubbles and primary colours has become embedded in our perception of Pop art and 1960s America.

Upon entering the first room, the style, decade and paintings are instantly recognisable. Oil paint, applied thickly and opaquely, makes the paintings brim with energy. Colours burst from the walls. In putting together the exhibition, curators James Rondeau and Sheena Wagstaff have explored the techniques and themes that made the Lichtenstein style iconic, with a distinctly sixties focus. Commercialism and pop culture figures are central.

One of the most striking sections of the exhibition is the ‘War and Romance’ room. Guns and planes dominate; big boys’ toys. Stereotypical masculine pursuits are neatly juxtaposed with the ‘feminine’ world of domesticity. The relationship between the sexes is clear: the woman is the damsel in distress; the man is the hero of the hour.

Lichtenstein was inspired by comics such as All American Men of War and used these to explore the clichéd gender roles featured in American media. The exploration of this dynamic is the high point of the exhibition and, it seems, Lichtenstein’s creative engagement with his subject.

Catering to modern fascination with self-reflexive art, the curators note that Lichtenstein began an “ongoing dialogue with the artists of the past”. However, it is difficult to see this dialogue taking place. The largest room features a series of repetitive and often redundant copies of works by Monet, Matisse and Picasso. Paintings such as Picasso’s ‘Femme d’Alger’(1955) are not so much reimagined (as Picasso had done with Delacroix’s 1834 original) but simply reconstituted with the familiar primary colour palette, in dots and dashes. This supposed dialogue is overlong, has one direction and adds little to the exhibition.

The 1960s romance paintings are witty and ironic reflections on women’s representation in the US media of the day. Yet, the mid-1990s female nudes are anything but thought-provoking. Lichtenstein decided not to work with models and instead imagined his nudes. Unsurprisingly, they appear ‘perfected’ visions of female sexuality. In comparison to their 1960s counterparts, these women are unsettling in their passivity  They have no speech bubble, no thoughts or feeling to convey. They are mere objects of masculine desire. Crucially, they fail to break new ground. They are a cheap repeat of what had gone before and make it difficult to identify the painter’s motivation. No explanation is offered, giving the impression the curators were as clueless as Lichtenstein himself seems to have been.

A similar feeling arises in the final rooms. Attempting, again, to find a new direction for his ‘dots and dashes’ Lichtenstein turned his hand to reinterpreting the Chinese landscapes produced during the Song Dynasty. In ‘Landscape with Philosopher’ we have Lichtenstein adopting a formula pioneered in the 1960s (to provide ironic comment on contemporary society and media) to reinterpret an eleventh century landscape. Surprisingly, in some ways, it actually works. 

It works because, despite all the repetition, recycling and reimagining, it appears that Lichtenstein knew what he was doing all along. Lichtenstein was fascinated as to how and why two works, similar in appearance, could each be described as either high or low art pieces. The cartoon philosopher at the bottom of the last piece is ironic testimony to this philosophy. Even the landscapes of the Song dynasty were not above Lichtenstein’s cartoonish treatment.
Yet I left the exhibition feeling dissatisfied. Upon exiting the gallery, I felt like telling Lichtenstein: “We get it. It was ironic. Cheap art made to look like proper art gawped at in galleries. You win!” But, simultaneously, could not help but feel that this comment had been lost along the way, especially after the 1960s. Tragically, it seems this was only explored meaningfully again at the very end of his career.

A clever and challenging philosophy, it has been voiced by many others and in many more challenging ways. The shadow of his Pop art peer, Andy Warhol, looms large over the retrospective. Once you leave the decade that made Lichtenstein, it is difficult to decide what more he had to offer.

‘Lichtenstein: A Retrospective’ is on display at the Tate Modern until May 27th 2013.