Review: Tate Modern's Roy Lichtenstein Retrospective

By Ben Miller | 27 February 2013

Exhibition review: Lichstenstein: A Retrospective, Tate Modern, London, February 21 – May 27 2013

a painting of a cartoon panel with a woman on the phone saying "Oh Jeff... I love you, too... but..."
Roy Lichtenstein, Oh, Jeff…I Love You, Too…But… 1964.© Collection Simonyi © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012
If the ubiquity of Roy Lichtenstein’s art renders preconceptions inevitable, the fourth space of Tate’s 13-room examination of his career, War and Romance, confirms them with a panoply of despairing damsels and gruff Dan Dare types.

The style which launched a billion posters, full of “desolate or virile pilots”, as co-curator Sheena Wagstaff puts it, forms a rip-roaring showcase at the centre of this most thorough retrospective since the Guggenheim’s, which followed the artist’s death in 1994.

But it’s the details on the canvasses beyond these figures which ultimately makes this such a great show.

Born in 1923 and trained as a painter, Lichtenstein did not receive major exhibition exposure until he was pushing 40.He co-opted images from a media-saturated world in which, as he saw it, everything was a copy of a copy of a copy.

But the essential painterly elements of colour, line and form were always there, and the riddle lies in how, irrespective of the generic nature of these slogans or products, we always know they are his.

Lichtenstein distilled the then-derided art deco into cubism for the home in the same way the comic artists he was inspired by used its principles in their books. He saw no difference between a black and white advert, a drawing of Mickey Mouse (fans will find him all over the place here) and an art book showing the finest works ever made.

His send-up of Picasso, made 50 years ago, coincided with the earliest comic artists, who he knew were perfecting style, balance, composition and cubism.

Every aspect of Lichtenstein’s work is precise, even when he wants us to think otherwise. In Laocoon, not one inch of paint overlaps or intertwines in this picture of an expressionist painting, each space deliberately created to allow for the next arc of colour. It might seem to be spontaneous, but it’s utterly the opposite. Plus and Minus IV, meanwhile, imitates Piet Mondrian through hundreds of layers.

There are numerous experiments, such as Seascape in the Landscapes gallery, where a piece of metallic plastic is turned into a reflective dark green mirror, employing optical dots to create a thing of kitsch beauty.

Room 11, which is full of works preceding his death, is perhaps even more interesting. Lichtenstein went back to the ladies of 1960s comic books, removed their clothes and replaced elements of the scene with dots.

In Nudes With Beach Ball, the dots seem ballistic, applied only to the skin of the women and the clouds above them, possibly because Lichtenstein was thinking about the particles and energy of being alive. These dots could be agents of ageing, living on in the sky.

Interior with Nude Leaving
, from the year of his death, shows a figure exiting stage left. It removes the black outline constant through all of his previous works to leave a spatial composition which seems to completely dissolve, pointing to what Lichtenstein might have done had he lived on.

The message is one of finality, but also of an analyst who, even at the end, could visualise the future.

  • Open 10am-6pm (10pm Saturday and Sunday, 8pm Sunday). Tickets £12.20-£15.50, book online. Visit the gallery on Twitter @Tate.
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