Lichtenstein @ Tate Modern


Benday dots, heavy black outlines and primary colours. The Tate Modern has been taken over by an impressive retrospective of Roy Lichtenstein’s work which will have you yearning for your childhood comic books .

The show documents the artists career from its very beginnings explaining his break away from abstract expressionism to the cartoon imagery he has become world famous for. The Tate shows Lichtenstein’s influences from advertising, mass culture and comics.

Also shown are a look at the artists interest in the production of his images. In the first room a series of paintings documenting brushstrokes are on display. Here the artist shows interest in production. Yet to me it seems a little ironic, as his uniform benday dots lack the individuality and emotion that are often seen in brushstrokes made from a paint brush.

Where Lichtenstein is probably most popular, is his use of cartoon imagery. This can be seen in Look Mickey, 1961 and also in his use of lesser known comic characters, taken from artwork of Irv Novick in 1962. In these scenes Lichtenstein perfectly captures the ‘pregnant moment’, in which we can imagine the whole story from a single image. These include many close ups of females in distress such as the infamous Oh Jeff…I love you too but…, 1964 and Drowning Girl 1963. Alongside these are scenes like Wham! 1963 of war, weapons and explosions. Hanging above these on the gallery walls are wall explosions which appear so up to date that if it weren’t for the accompanying wall text I would never have believe Lichtenstein to have made them in the 1960s.

The pop artist also excelled in his use of depicting american consumer culture in his advertisement like works. This can be seen in Sponge and Spray of 1962 where he has also used the glamorisation of women to display these products. Perfectly manicured red nails are on display with the curvaceous legs of a woman in red heels are seductively used to advertise a dustbin, a household item which is far from sexy in Step on Can with Leg, 1961. Lichtenstein’s fascination with women is seen again in his later work when he depicts the female nude. Despite being one of the oldest genres of art, Lichtenstein does not visit the theme until the 1990s. The artist does not work from life but instead undresses his comic characters and places them in unsettlingly bright interiors. His nudes do not display any form of modesty which is usually seen throughout art history. Instead his women are well made up with red lips and perfectly styled blonde hair. The women have been painted as pin ups. It is erotic and slightly off putting. None of them such as Blue Nude, 1995 appear to be particularly bothered about trying to protect their modesty.

The Tate also informs us of Lichtenstein’s apparent interest in art history. On display are altered versions of historical styles. The artist has put his own spin of everything from purism to art from antiquity. Benday dots have been added to Mondrian’s work while the Laocoon has been energised with Lichtenstein’s bright colours. Also shown are golden sculptures which have been inspired by an art deco influence. The Modern Series is made up of brass structures which still have a hint of glamour seen in other works with the inclusion of mirrors and a velvet rope.

Some of my favourite works in the show are Lichtenstein’s horizontal landscapes. These layered images are free of the melodrama of his comic imagery. Most impressive are his Chinese landscapes. They are calm and subdued. In paintings such as Cliffs, 1996, Lichtenstein still uses primary colours but he has diluted them. Here his work appears to be more refined. There is peace and the Benday dots are not so close together and vary in size. Lichtenstein has also abandoned his heavy black outlines and allowed his atmospheric mountains to blend in subtly with the horizon.

The Tate also succeeds in showing us examples of work in which Lichtenstein does not work in colour. In fact his black and white images are among some of the most striking and memorable on display. These monochromatic images allow us to see the true extent of the power of heavy outlines and benday dots. Many of these images appear to be more masculine, here we see ryes, golf balls, a radio and a magnifying glass.

This exhibition is a pop artist’s paradise. Each room is full of colour, energy and vitality. Perfect to brighten up the rainiest of days.

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective is on display at Tate Modern until 27 May

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer with a special interest in contemporary Middle Eastern Art. She has a BA in Art History and an MA in Contemporary Art and Art Theory of Asia and Africa from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She runs the Gallery Girl blog and has written for After Nyne, Arteviste, Canvas Magazine, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed Magazine, ReOrient and Suitcase Magazine. Lizzy is also curator of Arab Women Artists Now - AWAN 2018 (London).

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