Tate Modern, in collaboration with the Art Institute of Chicago, and with the support of the Washington National Gallery of Art and Paris’ Centre Pompidou, hosts a unique retrospective dedicated to the emphatically American Pop artist, Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), which will run until May 27th, 2013.

This is the first major exhibition since the artist’s death, and it displays a selection of 160 works, created in a wide range of media between 1950 and 1997, and thematically covers Lichtenstein’s entire career.

As the curators, James Rondeau and Sheena Wagstaff state in the exhibition catalogue: “Lichtenstein’s contribution predicated on the elegant resolution of an uneasy, still potent collision of commercial and fine art, defined the enduring legacy of Pop…One understands today…that access to lived experience is entirely mediated by signs and symbols, endlessly replicated by omnipresent mass media.”

Indeed, although Roy Lichtenstein, who taught art and drawing for a great part of his life, perfectly mastered the academic art language, his main sources lied in the ‘low’, popular art of advertising, comic strips, commercial clichés, product packaging and graphic arts…… a whole array of dull household imagery and cheap mass-produced objects that he enhanced and glorified.

However, the ‘American dream’ seems too good to be true and Lichtenstein’s hyperbolic portrayal of 1950s -1960s American middle class values and consumerism is at times more than satirical, and in fact quite subtly subversive. Lichtenstein’s ‘forging’ talent could easily mislead the viewer into thinking that his strokes and dots are stencilled ‘fakes’, when they were actually meticulously painted onto the canvas by hand.   

The exhibition is divided into 13 sections, from ‘Early abstractions’ to the ‘Pop art’ years, to ‘War & Romance’ cartoon-inspired series; Ben Day dotted ‘landscapes’, ‘Art history’, with Lichtenstein’s interpretations of works by Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Monet, Delacroix and Cezanne, ‘Perfect/Imperfect’ totally abstract canvases, Pop ‘Nudes’, and ‘Landscapes in the Chinese style’.

Roy Lichtenstein’s best-known works are certainly the ‘War & Romance’ paintings inspired by comic strip scenes, which showed  action men opposing ‘blonde chick’ types. Neurotic or capricious women were either hanging by the phone and crying, or going through identity crisis with depression, mood swings and paranoia.

  Lichtenstein ironically refers to post-war sexist popular romance cartoons, which were heavily censored, and chose to promote marriage and family values, female obedience and passivity, while discouraging women’s entrance into the workforce and their desire for independence. Cartoon bubbles, short texts and onomatopoeias, complement the violent colours of the war pieces, while parodying the machismo of the wartime propaganda discourse.

Less known and yet equally impressive are the artist’s Art Deco-inspired brass and glass sculptures and his Pop Art glazed ceramics.

It’s definitely worth noting that even an artist as iconoclastic as Roy Lichtenstein, who once said: “Don’t look for ideas”, when referring to his art, has since become a leading figure of the modernist canon.

Louise Kissa
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