Roy Lichtenstein, the man who brought the comic strip into the art gallery, is renowned as one of the definitive artists of pop. His persona is not as familiar as the conspicuously self-caricaturing Warhol, but Lichtenstein’s explosions, consumer goods and comic-book couples, rendered in his trademark harsh outlines, primary colour palette and Ben-Day dot shadings are as recognisable as any Warholian soup can, Brillo box or Marilyn, and their influence on subsequent generations of artists has arguably been as great.
For, as Tate Modern’s forthcoming Lichtenstein retrospective demonstrates, there is much more to this thoughtful, complex figure than the brief explosion of Pop. Underpinning the brash cartoonish immediacy of his works are profound conceptual concerns and a deep preoccupation with art history that have played a major part in their enduring impact.
There is no denying the storm of controversy that greeted many of the paintings — which have since become familiar pop art classics — when they received their first full-scale airing at Leo Castelli’s New York gallery in 1962. Howls of outrage accompanied these vulgar, everyday images of fast food, washing machines and comics, rendered in the harsh style of crude mass-production: they seemed to be violating the sacred sanctum of high art. ‘The art galleries are being invaded by the pin-headed and contemptible style of gum-chewers, bobby soxers and worse, delinquents,’ fulminated the critic Max Kozloff, while art guru Clement Greenberg declared — in a judgment that would come back to haunt him — that Lichtenstein would be forgotten within ten years. Two years later, the debate still burned when Life magazine, parodying an earlier paean to Jackson Pollock, which had questioned whether he was ‘the greatest artist in the United States’, ran an article on Lichtenstein’s work beneath the headline, ‘Is he the worst artist in the US?’
For his part, Lichtenstein wanted to produce art that ‘looked out into the world’, stating: ‘Art since Cezanne has become extremely romantic and unrealistic… it is utopian.’ Certainly, in the face of these deadpan, mechanically impersonal renditions of crass consumerism, even such recent forays into Americana as Jasper Johns’ flags and Robert Rauschenberg’s urban detritus looked hopelessly old-fashioned and handmade, while the boiling abstract expressionist brushstrokes of Pollock et al appeared positively antique.
But Lichtenstein’s desire to engage with the world around him is only part of the story. Many of his paintings may reflect a world filled with ‘gas pumps… signs and comic strips’, but they also reflect serious and abiding concerns about the role and relevance of painting, the authenticity of the art experience and how a contemporary artist can engage with art history. The 37-year-old New Jersey art teacher had been searching for a relevant and personal artistic style for more than two decades when he painted ‘Look Mickey’ (1961), the work depicting Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck which he considered to be his first Pop painting. (Legend has it that one of Lichtenstein’s children pointed to a comic book and challenged him to make a better drawing, whereupon he dashed off America’s favourite rodent and found his eureka moment in the process.)
While there is no doubt that Lichtenstein’s adoption of a commercial style provided a way out of a paint-splattered abstract expressionist cul-de-sac to an art that could express the crude commercial reality of late Fifties’ American life, his response to that reality was ambivalent and far from celebratory. As early as 1963, he had declared that his new style and subject matter marked ‘an involvement with what I think to be the most brazen and threatening characteristics of our culture, things we hate but which are powerful in their impingement on us’. He later declared that the purpose of his pop art works was to ‘show… the capitalist system in an ironic way’.
The Tate exhibition also confirms that Lichtenstein’s classic Pop works form a fraction of an output which was more devoted to the art of the past than the consumer culture of the present. Even though he had stopped painting in a Picasso-esque style by the early Fifties, throughout his life Lichtenstein openly acknowledged him as his main artistic inspiration, saying in an interview just before his death in 1997: ‘I don’t think I am over his influence.’
Within a year of entering his Pop phase, Lichtenstein had also used his new language to paint a cartoon-style version of Picasso’s ‘Femme au Chapeau’, and went on to make innumerable paintings based on the Spanish master’s work, culminating in 1996’s ‘Mickasso’, a drawing and a collage which presents a comic-strip version of Picasso’s classic cubist ‘Harlequin with Guitar’, in which a Mickey Mouse hand plucks the strings.
Lichtenstein also responded to Picasso’s dialogue with, and reworking of, masterpieces from art history, and made many series of paintings that reproduced the imagery of major figures, ranging from Matisse to Mondrian, Monet and Jackson Pollock, as well as creating his own flattened and codified distillations of abstract expressionism, art deco and Impressionism. This paved the way for what would later be dubbed appropriation art.
With characteristic ambiguity, just as Lichtenstein’s meticulously planned and painstakingly hand-executed paintings mimicked mechanical processes while being quite the opposite, so his rendering of major cultural icons as enlarged cartoons was as much an act of homage as critique. ‘The things I have apparently parodied I actually admire,’ he admitted. His art of flatness and façade was not so much an attack on painting as an analysis of its impact and power, which at the same time acted as a sharp reminder that the way we see most of our imagery, artistic and otherwise, is via second-hand reproductions rather than the real thing. In the art of Roy Lichtenstein, seemingly ironic detachment was a subtle mask for a lifelong and passionate engagement with what we look at and how we look at it. As he said: ‘My work isn’t about form, it’s about seeing.’
Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, Tate Modern, 21 February–27 May 2013