With the recent opening of ‘Lichtenstein: A Retrospective’ at London’s Tate Modern, now is the perfect time to appreciate the iconic Pop art of Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997). This exhibition brings together the most comprehensive range of his work ever attempted; 125 pieces including paintings such as ‘Whaam!’ and ‘Drowning Girl’.
Like other Pop artists of the time, Lichtenstein’s most famous art concentrates on themes of current culture; one of his main focuses was 1960s comic books. By blowing up cartoons and everyday items onto canvas, Lichtenstein made ordinary subjects into something extraordinary.
Lichtenstein’s first ‘cartoon’ painting, which paved the way towards the artist’s unique style, is taken from a children’s Disney book depiction of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck (‘Look Mickey’, 1961). This comical scene portrays Donald Duck ‘hooking a big one’, which he presumes to be a large fish but is in fact his own rear, much to Mickey’s amusement. ‘Look Mickey’ encouraged Lichtenstein to create more ‘comic’ art, including scenes of war, romance and domesticity.
What differentiates Lichtenstein from his contemporaries is that he interpreted reality. Andy Warhol depicted reality as it was, by using brand items like Coca Cola and Campbell’s soup, and icons like Marilyn Monroe. However, Lichtenstein used common items without branding, and gave his characters generic names, such as Brad in his ‘Masterpiece’ painted in 1962. This painting, taken from a comic strip and altered by Lichtenstein, perhaps pre-empted Lichtenstein’s future success as an artist. In the same year Lichtenstein had his first one-man show in the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York and would soon have the city clamouring for his work.
Although Lichtenstein is best known for his comic strips, he was influenced by the work of Picasso, Matisse and Monet. In fact his widow Dorothy Lichtenstein recently revealed he was frustrated at being continually called a Pop artist.
Lichtenstein wished to prevent his work from looking like painting. His trademark Benday dots do this through duplicating genuine comic strips and newspaper images. He described this way of painting as un-elegant and artificial, yet something was made elegant without the viewer realising.
Lichtenstein’s work originally divided the public, with Life magazine asking “Is he the worst artist in the US?” in 1964. Yet his work is now more popular than ever; last year ‘Sleeping Girl’ (1964) sold for £27.8 million at New York’s Sotheby’s, the highest price paid for a Lichtenstein painting to date.
Get down to the Tate modern this Easter to see Lichtenstein’s revolutionary yet witty work up-close.
‘Lichtenstein: A Retrospective’ is showing at the Tate Modern before 27th May 2013
Image: ‘Look Mickey!’ by Lichtenstein, flickrID:thingsworthdescribing