Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, Tate Modern London
'Not Such a Comic Strip'
by Deniz CAGLAR
"Whaam!" is a story of the mystery of life and death, rewritten for a secular age. Abstract Expressionism was Old Testament, and Pop art was New.
Roy Lichtenstein. The painter’s name is linked with his signature comic-book images of women, their thoughts rising in text bubbles above tentacles of tousled hair, mounds of tears leaking from their eyes. His signature style, of course, remains constant from the early 1960s, when he began exploring mass-media conventions of rendering three dimensional objects, with three-color printing and screens of Benday dots.
The first three works you see as you enter the show emphasize brush strokes. As you pass by from the painterly surface of the ceiling in “Artist’s Studio ‘Look Mickey’ ” (1973) to the textured, slightly scored silver panel in “Entablature” (1975) to the vivid corporeality of “Galatea,” (1990) a three-dimensional sculpture cutting the artist’s signature sensuous black lines through the gallery air.
Abstract Expressionist art was Lichtenstein's first great subject. Like Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol, he used mass-media techniques to demolish art's firmly entrenched clichés. Then he started out with images taken from phone books and newspaper ads and comic books.
The biggest “trick” involved the comic-book subject matter and style that comes into the work in 1961 with a bang and the piece “Look, Mickey.” Nothing is quite what it seems in a Lichtenstein painting, and this image of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck turns out to have been quoted not from a comic book, but from a children’s book illustration: Lichtenstein actually returned it from a more painterly idiom to a comic-book one, with three-color “printing” and an uneven grid of red dots on Mickey’s face applied with a dog grooming brush. “Look, Mickey” also leaves, in the underlying pencil sketches, traces of the human hand involved in making this supposedly mechanical image, and in subtly altering it from its original form — something Lichtenstein did in all his comic-based work.
Over the years he broadened his range of recognizable cultural icons to include canonical works of art history: Matisse still lifes, Picasso nudes, which now makes up his Art about Art Collection, and Chinese landscapes, Mirrors and Entablatures; considering the background, which I personally find even more extraordinary than the comic strips.
Lichtenstein’s work is simply about the artistic depiction of print screens and dots; and what animates it is not solely its inherent social criticism, but the tension between the individuality of the painter’s hand and eye and the impersonality of what he uses them to illustrate. This tension runs through the whole show, and is what made it such a delight, even a revelation.
Mirrors and Entablatures