Review: Lichtenstein – A Retrospective

Oh, Lichtenstein we love you too.

Yes folks, the biggest show of the year is finally here. The King of the Benday dot, the comic book rip-off merchant, the man who put the ‘pop’ so firmly into art that it never came out again, the loveable Whaam-meister, aka Roy Lichtenstein, has landed.

If you don’t go to this show you need a lobotomy.

Admittedly, like any show that picks a small number of paintings from a mountain of work (in this case 125 paintings from over 2000) it’s a fudge. It’s a curatorial mishmash. It’s a re-invention of the man and the myth. It’s a peas pudding of pop art history. But who cares? They had to beg, steal and borrow to get this billion dollar haul together, and then some. This is a landmark in the art calender of this decade, let alone this year.

(OK OK, they didn’t steal anything but I bet there was a fair bit of industrial-scale arm-bending involved.)

Yes, you are going to make owners of Lichtenstein art richer by going, but where else are you going to have a pop artgasm on this scale?

Let’s cut to the chase. Read my lips: This show is all about the fourth room.

I dare anyone to go into the fourth (War and Romance) and not feel an extreme rush of ‘Wooooow am i really seeing this? Oh wow’.

You can faff around in the other twelve rooms to your heart’s delight, but it’s the fourth that you have really come for folks. The rest is good/great in its own way, but it’s the merch in this room that set the world on fire all those years ago. Warhol lit the afterburners but this guy, with this art, dropped the bomb.

Whaam! (1963) – the one owned by the Tate is there. You kick yourself for not paying it much attention on previous visits to the Tate. But in context….whaaaaaam…. it now hits you, and hits you hard. Up close and  person you totally get it. You see why Lichtenstein’s dealer Leo Castelli knew he had a protege on his hands when he signed the former art teacher. (Footnote: Castelli was a real king maker in 1960s New York, but he was also the man who said ‘no’ to Warhol, despite the insistent urging of his assistant.)

The Tate famously had a bit of a row on its hands when buying Whaam! because the old guard were dead against it. In the end they paid £3,800. Current value might be over £30m. The current Tate Modern management were keen to joke about this fact at the press conference on preview day (see below).

The room also contains the superb Hopeless (1963), and Drowning Girl (1963) and Bratatat (1962).

But let’s rewind.

If you move through the rooms sequentially you are presented with a timeline of sorts. Room 1 bucks that trend by focussing on the delicious Brushstrokes work where Lichtenstein showed us that a painting of painting of painting was an interesting idea.

After this we move onto Early Pop and notably Look Mickey (1961) which looks like it was the moment Litchenstein finally got it. You can almost envisage him looking at it on completion and saying “Yes! This might really work”. Funny to hear that it was actually a picture from his son’s story book and that it was his son who challenged him to paint something as good (or so the myth goes).

Other rooms present us with his black and white work (not bad, nice and simple); Landscapes/Seascapes (not so memorable); Modern (some intriguing brassworks); Art about Art (nice homages to Picasso and Monet).

But get ready for a treat. Room 8 is the second most powerful. Titled Artist’s Studios it includes the giant Artist’s Studio Look Mickey – the playful painting within a painting. You literally have to stand on the other side of the room to fully take it in. It’s so clean, so clinical, yet so perfectly constructed. Masterpiece.

I will leave you to discover the remaining rooms save to say his late nudes are a delight and his final works (a year before dying) are sublime, and moving. Some critics seem to think they are a bit ineffectual, but if like me you love a bit of Chinese-inspired art you will love how Lichtenstein merged his style with theirs. Knowing that he died so soon after it would be reasonable to suggest that they foretold of his imminent departure as if saying ‘So long Pop Art – hello immortality.’

Well done Roy. Well done Tate and co.

OK enough wordage. Here’s some vids worth checking out.

The press conference on preview day followed by Channel 4′s coverage (featuring interviews with curator Sheena Wagstaff and Dorothy Lichtenstein.

For loads more videos go here on YouTube for a complete listing.

Or look here at a gallery of stills mostly taken at the exhibition by a wide range of sources (via Google Image).

Footnote: Castelli never signed Lichtenstein; they had a verbal agreement that lasted a lifetime. Those were the days.


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