Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective

Roy Lichtenstein was very much misunderstood by some of his contemporaries. For example, in 1964, Life magazine asked: “Is he the worst artist in America?” It was a genuine enquiry. His work, defined by its cartoonish aesthetic, bright primary colours and pop cultural ethos, seemed to be too easy to have any worth or respect.
Half a century later, the outlook on Lichtenstein is dramatically different. He is very much held in high regard, a true icon of his time, and judged to be a visionary who found a novel way of exploring ideas through art. The better we understand him, the more intriguing his work becomes and the greater he appears, as a new exhibition at Tate Modern reveals.
He’s also big money. Two years ago, the superbly multifaceted I Can See the Whole Room…and There’s Nobody in It! went under the hammer at Christie’s for £26,785,550. It had, after all, originally sold for just over £300 in 1961.
All in all, not bad for an artist who figured out what his style was by “borrowing” from others. Look Mickey, executed in 1961, was effectively his first proper foray into pop art and remains the perfect example of where everything fell into place. It was inspired by a picture from a Donald Duck illustrated book.
Everything about the reproduction echoes of the original source. The very image, with some subtle alterations, duplicates what Lichtenstein saw, yet in its simplification of form, it takes on another meaning.
An intellectual examination of it leads to many conclusions. It’s comic, of course, Donald ensnaring himself on a hook while fishing, convinced that he’s caught something scrumptious, much to Mickey Mouse’s delight, who is revelling mischievously in schadenfreude. This is pop art at its most irreverent and sardonic.
On the other hand, as the art professor Graham Bader understands it, the painting goes deeper. It’s an examination of self, which he does through Donald, who like Caravaggio’s Narcissus is intoxicated with himself. In this instance, it is not Donald’s reflection that “hooks” him, but Lichtenstein’s well-placed signature “rfl”.
This concept is fascinating, and if there is any validity to this intriguing analysis, then the likelihood is that it was more subliminal in origin. Lichtenstein had struggled to find a voice up until then.
“The idea of doing [a cartoon painting] without apparent alteration just occurred to me […] and I did one really almost half seriously to get an idea of what it might look like,” he said many years later.
“And as I was painting this painting I kind of got interested in organising it as a painting and brought it to some kind of conclusion as an aesthetic statement, which I hadn’t really intended to do to begin with. And then I really went back to my other kind of painting, which was pretty abstract. Or tried to.”
But he couldn’t. That image he couldn’t shake, it was, as he said, “too formidable”. As such, abstract for him began to lose its relevance. This was the conduit through which he would find a sense of purpose. It would change him and art forever.
Returning then to composition, Look Mickey has, for example, the red, blue and yellow hues that we instantly recognise as his, as well as a delicate suggestion of the thick, cool and wonderful black outlines that would also be a Lichtenstein staple in evidence.
More importantly perhaps, in addition to the speech bubbles of course, is his utilisation of the Ben-Day dots, an old school technique that was used for a number of reasons. This included as a means of shading his paintings as well as to give his works a half-tone effect. Their simplicity is deceiving.
“Lichtenstein’s paintings are far more technically demanding than it seems at first glance,” explained Sarah Churchwell, a professor of American literature and public understanding of the humanities at the University of East Anglia, in an article for the Guardian in February.
“His work was described by the critic Hal Foster as the ‘handmade readymade’: not industrially mechanised, but blending careful techniques of handwork with the reproduction and screening of found images. It is not art trouvé but art retrouvé: refashioned, recovered, reframed. And in the process, our simplistic distinctions between making and manufacturing begin to dissolve.”
Look Mickey says everything about Lichtenstein and how his work dances along the border between popular culture and high art, unabashed as to which side it falls on. It’s ultimately a very dangerous painting, but the kind that is needed. Look Mickey dared to be something different and ultimately said why does it matter if something is enjoyed by everyone or remains too remote for the masses?
It doesn’t. But Lichtenstein, who made use of the past, and in turn was himself borrowed from, did what many people fail to do. He became an iconoclast that is enjoyed by everyone.
Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective at Tate Modern runs until May 27th 2013.
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