I’ve never been the greatest fan of Roy Lichtenstein, (1923-1997), but have still been aware of his place in the canon of Pop Art from the 1960’s. I went to the Tate Modern today with my university photography group to see his retrospective. The place was packed with people, and I remembered that it’s not the best idea to go to London exhibitions in the first few weeks, or the last few weeks either for that matter!
That aside, I enjoyed the show, despite the fact that The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph delivered poor reviews.
For me, as is often the case at exhibitions, the sheer scale of the work and the amazing detail were enough to hold my attention. Of course I’m most familiar with his ‘comic strip’ work, like everyone else I suspect, so I was pleased to see that there was so much more to Lichtenstein than that. In fact many of the comic strips were absent. I had no idea about most of the work I saw today.
Many of the canvases had a distinctly 1960’s feel to them, and many of the objects would have been new inventions at the time, the transistor radio for example. Lichtenstein never claimed to be good at fine art, his were ‘pictures’ of modernity often culled from images in catalogues and magazines which he cut out and kept in a scrapbook. It was clear from the outset that he dipped in and out of the art movements around at the time, such as Abstract Expressionism by artists such as Jackson Pollock. In fact Lichtenstein’s work often seemed to be the antithesis of Pollock’s, carefully laid and defined in a mannered fashion, obviously inspired by industrial printing. He used screen printing and hand drilled aluminium stencils initially to achieve his mechanical dots, although sometimes they appeared to be painted by hand. Later he used larger prefabricated ‘Benday’ screens to achieve his uniform dots. He did use brush strokes at times, but they were carefully applied, often in an ironic way, to the canvas.
The curator has used a chronological sequence to depict Lichtenstein’s artwork which is interesting to follow. There is a gallery of black and white paintings, such as ‘Tire’ 1962 and ‘Ball of Twine’ 1963, which I liked, but I’d never seen any of them before. A series of landscapes reduced to horizontal lines representing sea, land and sky and devoid of subject seemed quite unlike typical Lichtenstein images. He spent much of his time parodying other artists he admired such as Matisse, Mondrian and Picasso and associated movements such as Cubism, Impressionism and Surrealism.
His series of mirror paintings seemed most interesting from a photography perspective. He tilted mirrors under various types of light, studied them and then painted the results incorporating different sizes of Benday dots. This part of the exhibition, together with a series of simple Chinese landscapes was fascinating – the landscape below was painted in 1996, a year before he died.
I learnt today that there is much more to Lichtenstein than I’d ever previously thought. I had wondered about whether to go to the exhibition at all, and decided that even if I didn’t like it, it would be useful to know exactly what I didn’t like. I thought I would become weary of the comic strip images, but there weren’t many of them. I didn’t expect to be fascinated by some of his work, and would urge those who claim not to like Lichtenstein, and there seem to be many of them, to just go to the exhibition and view him in a new light.
For all you iPhone geeks out there, a lovely little ‘app’ is available from iTunes, at a reasonable charge, highlighting the exhibition which is, incidentally, on until 27th May 2013, and costs approximately £14 to get in.