3 April 2013

Lichtenstein at Tate Modern

Tate Modern’s Lichtenstein: A Retrospective is a show that does what it says on the Warholian can. Roy Lichtenstein (1923-57) was the other central figure of American Pop Art in the 1960s and 70s and one of the best known artists of the last century. After showings in Chicago and Washington, 125 of his works, rumoured to be a worth a billion US$, have arrived at Tate Modern for an exhibition which is mostly chronological. So we see his first experiments with Ben-Day dots and then the renditions of comic book images writ large in blocks of primary colour. A roomful of some of the most familiar of these grouped as War and Romance include Whaam! (the Tate’s own) and Los! (below) and Oh, Jeff … I Love You, Too…But… 1964 in the banner above.

It is intriguing to see the original sources of these images, not least because of the opportunity to appreciate their size and construction. Two things struck me about reproductions of Lichtenstein’s works which, inevitably, are very much smaller than the originals. Firstly, in the 1960s he used a very pale grey ground which usually appears as white, and secondly, reproductions often fail to differentiate adjacent dark blues and blacks. The paintings are usually described as oil and magna on canvas, Magna being the brand name for the acrylic resin paint used by Lichtenstein for the broad black lines which delineate the monotone areas of his pictures.

After establishing his style, Lichtenstein produced variations on it for decades which are shown in the rooms which follow. His reworkings of Picasso, Mondrian and others, the massive depictions of artists’ studios (Matisse above), the late nudes (below) and the Chinese landscapes, all of which are on a near-white ground, are interesting to see but lack the innovatory impact experienced at War and Romance. The show ends where it might have begun with some of Lichtenstein’s early abstract expressionist pieces alongside small late paintings.

My only reservation about this show is the size of the captions on the wall adjacent to each canvas. These have been confined to a space about 8cm by 10 cm. By contrast, Nudes with a Beach Ball 1964 (above) is 301 cm by 272.4 cm, and so has over 1000 times the area of its caption. The positions which the viewer will find suitable for reading one and for appreciating the other are several metres apart. Now that many gallery-goers carry smart phones, is it not possible to design an app for them which, by accessing local wi-fi perhaps, delivers the appropriate captions to their screens? Then there would be no need to trot forward and back, the risk of collisions with other visitors would be eliminated, and, best of all, there would be more time to look at the pictures.

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective continues until 27 May.

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