Lichtenstein – A Retrospective at Tate Modern

IMG_3001 Lichtenstein is best known for his paintings of comic strip type images. The canvasses are large, the images of weeping blondes and lantern jawed fighter pilots are close ups in bright primary colours, with areas of flat colour delineated by black outlines juxtaposed with dots of colour, simulating the way cheap comics are printed, but magnified so that they are a challenge to the way we look at the works.  There are speech bubbles telling us the thoughts of the characters, and descriptions of the narrative in the picture, and every element is a cliché of the all America action hero comic books.

 The challenge is there to consider where popular and ‘high’ culture meet.  Is he endorsing the stereotypical images, or has he put them in high relief to make us look at them more closely?  It’s a very dispassionate, analytical way of looking at the world.

The large retrospective at the Tate Modern starts with his first pop art works, and although there are a couple of examples of his earlier works shown towards the end of the show alongside some reworkings of abstract pieces he did at the end of his life, it is as if he arrived at his distinctive style fully formed.

I feel as if I’ve seen a lot of dots and spots at Tate Modern in the last couple of years; first there was Yayoi Kusama with her obsessive application of dots to whole scenes and three dimensional installations, then the repetitive, factory produced spots from  Damien Hirst.  Lichtenstein has  his own style of dots, produced, I’ve now learnt, using something called Ben-day, a sort of stencilling process, to mimic the printing process used in pulp fiction.

I’ve seen some of the comic strip paintings before, but what I enjoyed mist about this exhibition was seeing the other groups of works he created: a series of monochrome still lives, a golf ball,  a tire, a dissolving alka selter, all sharp lines and shapes making strong graphic images, making me think about how little in line and shape are necessary to construct an image.

The next rooms contained pastiches or parodies of other great works, a sort of conversation with other artists and paintings about paintings.  It becomes clear that once he’d established his visual language, and we have become familiar with it, we can recognise it anywhere.  I enjoyed the wit and humour of these works.   His playing with the ideas of Chinese landscape where he captured a sense of perspective by using different sized dots, were a surprise too.

By the end of the exhibition, I had a much better understanding of the range of things which had interested him, and the conversation he had through his work with the history of painting.

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