In the very final room of the Roy Lichtenstein retrospective, which opens tomorrow at Tate Modern, there is something completely unexpected. It contains five paintings, completed in the year before the painter’s death in 1997, inspired by work from the Song dynasty (960 to 1270).With their Benday dots, these strange works are recognisably Lichtensteins but they are also incredibly faithful homages to a certain style of oriental art.
Of course in the internet age, almost all artists are often reduced to one or two famous works, aesthetic shorthands which render these huge talents immediately recognisable to the mainstream. In Lichtenstein’s case these are of course the comic-book inspired works created in his so-called War and Romance years, and one of the largest rooms in the show is given over to these seminal pop-art pieces, including the world- famous Whaam!
But as curator Sheena Wagstaff pointed out this week, this work represents only seven years of Lichtenstein’s career – he was working for three more decades after the 1960s. The Chinese paintings are just one of many manifestations of Lichtenstein’s talent of which I was embarrassingly unaware. There is a room of nudes, a series of paintings dedicated to reimagining other woks of art – Picassso, Monet and the Laocoön sculpture at the Vatican. There are studio scenes, landscapes, some wonderful still-lifes (one features three brilliantly morose goldfish) and a series of monochrome paintings based on illustrations of everyday objects – a tyre, a golf-ball, an Alka Selzer dropped into a glass of water.
For Sheena through all these phases, what Lichtenstein “is trying to achieve as a painter is the same.” His works are not facsimiles of existing images, rather he co-opts them to his own ends, to make the point that “in a media-saturated moment everything has been mediated, it’s a copy of a copy of a copy.”
“He thought I cannot deliver a la Pollock so here’s this product that contains this emotionalism.”
The fun comes, she says, in trying to “unpick the riddle” and in this context the revelation that Lichtenstein was never a fan of comics or cartoonists is less surprising than it might otherwise have been. His obsession is not with this or that kind of imagery, but rather the whole hierarchy whereby some images are accorded so much more value and significance than others.
The key to understanding this artist, says co curator James Rondeau is to see Lichtenstein’s redirection towards pop art from abstract expressionism as a move rooted in pragmatism, which then developed into a fully fledged philosophy. “He thought I cannot deliver a la Pollock so here’s this product that contains this emotionalism. It became about the stylisation of style itself.”
It’s a joyous, colourful show well worth a visit if you’re in London, if only to convince you that Lichtenstien isn’t just about the comics.
Lichtenstein: A Retrospective is at Tate Modern until May 27.