Over the long arc of its compelling trajectory, Roy Lichtenstein’s art remained moored to unabashedly art-historical sensibilities. This is the case not simply with the series of prints and paintings he made in 1968–9 in response to Claude Monet’s haystacks (1890–1) or his citation of Henri Matisse in Still Life with Reclining Nude (Study) (1997). The very ontology of painting – how it mediates the visible world and metaphorizes that vision in turn – pulses in the marrow of Lichtenstein’s art, even when surface is all it appears concerned with. The artist’s trademark Ben-Day dots seem to reify vision, at once preposterously crystalizing its components and distancing them, ironizing them. These circular units look forward to Chuck Close’s portraits as much as they look back to Georges Seurat and his various legacies.
Featuring nearly 170 works, this major retrospective – curated by James Rondeau and Sheena Wagstaff – is the first since Lichtenstein’s death in 1997. Organized by the Art Institute of Chicago (where this touring show orginated) and Tate Modern, London, (where it just opened and runs until 27 May) in association with the National Gallery of Art, it is both chronological and thematic, offering a sense of the artist’s experiments over several decades, as well as highlighting the themes, motifs and subjects that threaded though his prolific output.
By 1961, bearing many of the same basic preoccupations as Andy Warhol’s work, Lichtenstein’s painting was often lumped into the same fold as his flashier peer. This refutes the nuances. Of course, a flattening of affect and individuality is precisely what Pop pursued, recoiling from the tell-tale gestures of painterly eccentricity. Lichtenstein himself – as this retrospective highlights – took an early turn in the Abstract Expressionist orbit. His efforts from the late 1950s resemble the tight swatches and stitches of Philip Guston’s abstraction more than the exuberance of other contemporaries. To read back into these relatively controlled formal experiments the mechanics of Lichtenstein’s later Pop work is something of a stretch. But his occasional incorporation of subject matter from popular culture in several abstract works seems already to have portended something else.
The artist’s time teaching at Rutgers University and his friendship with Allan Kaprow – whose Happenings brought action painting into real time – hastened Lichtenstein’s embrace of comic strips and popular commodities. Pop afforded objects and narratives that had evaporated in the rarefied air of AbEx’s solemn silence. As arresting as the landmark work Look Mickey (1961) are the paintings of everyday objects, such as a tyre or a ring. Rendered in perspective, even as all context is effaced, they bear an uncanny solidity. But here, again, we find less evidence of the artist’s radical break with aesthetic trends than a plain engagement with earlier art histories. Ball of Twine (1963) and Tire (1962) owe more than a casual debt to the Sachplakats (or Object Posters) of designer Lucien Bernhard and the corpulent realisms of 1920s and ’30s New Objectivity. Indeed, Lichtenstein admitted to mining the affinities between the 1960s and the ’30s – a prelapsarian epoch of solid things and surer meanings.
But Lichtenstein was never some facile pasticheur. The great surprises in the early rooms were Portable Radio (1962) and Compositions 1 (1964), works that render the canvas cheekily consubstantial with the object it purports to depict. (The former even bears its own functional leather strap.) At a time when neo-dada and other neo-avant-garde practices were putting paid to the self-righteousness of painting, these works signal an awareness of their own medium, its fictions and fallacies. It is no accident, then, that works like Portrait of Madame Cézanne (1962) recall Francis Picabia’s arch diagrams as much as they seem to rhyme with Warhol’s contemporary Dance Diagrams. And when Lichtenstein returned, in the mid-’60s, to the brushstroke, it was as a caricature of itself. Several of these still-thrilling works (Brushstroke with Spatter, 1966, Little Big Painting, 1965, and Brushstrokes, 1965) invoke the artistic signature as the subject – rather than the unselfconscious vehicle – of painterly investigation.
The series of ‘entablature’ paintings of 1971–6 brought the same sensibility to architectural mouldings glimpsed on Wall Street facades. While stripping down and flattening entablatures, the works also suggest the palliative operations of Synthetic Cubism and Art Deco, soothing their subjects into something unthreateningly geometric. Le Corbusier and Fernand Léger’s Purism also loom large here. Again, though, the contemporary field must not be discounted: Donald Judd’s ‘specific objects’ lie in the wings too. Though if Lichtenstein did defy contemporary convention, it was not so much through the act of painting as storytelling – most notably the clipped narratives that he imported from comic books. More performative and bathetic than Warhol’s female subjects, Lichtenstein’s women – clutching a phone nervously or their own heads in exasperation; sighing or sobbing – conjure up a readymade cultural repertoire, one that anticipates some of the appropriation strategies of Cindy Sherman and others.
Featuring the family reunions for which such retrospectives are often the felicitous occasion, the artist’s four large ‘Studio’ works – including Artist’s Studio “Look Mickey” (1973) – were brought together for the first time since their exhibition at Leo Castelli’s gallery in 1974. The brilliant ‘Mirror’ paintings of 1966–71 also had an ample showing; they offer a semiotics of painting no less incisive than Picasso’s papiers collés. Alternately thickening or dispersing, the fields of dots alternate between signifying shadow or reflection, recalling, too, the playful reflexivity of the ‘Brushstroke’ works of 1965–6. In partial homage to the Song Dynasty (960–1279), the series of ‘Landscapes in the Chinese style’ (1996–7) found the artist applying paint with sponges, but paying no less attention to the nuances of proximity and distance, atmospheric perspective and something more impossibly logical.
The ‘Nudes’ (1994–7) formed the weakest images in the show, falling prey to a kind of half-hearted self-imitation. But then, Lichtenstein’s painting always imitated painting, and made of that a virtue at once playful and penetrating. Exiting the exhibition, one was led through several rooms of the National Gallery’s permanent collection. A Picasso papier collé and Juan Mirò’s cartoony Farm (1921–2) lent an improvised coda, setting into further relief Lichtenstein’s relationship to an earlier modernist project – one perhaps cleansed of more aggressive and idealistic social imperatives, but no less savvy about the visual language that might be their vehicle.