Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Lichtenstein: A retrospective

Tate Modern
21 February – 27 May 2013

 Landscape in Fog 1996. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012. From here.

A few of this distinctive artist's works go a long way, and although this retrospective dutifully covers his range, excess doesn't serve him well.

The works are big and bright, even those in monochrome, and for the most part vulgarly so, except for a charming series of Chinese landscapes executed at the end of the artist’s life.

Once he found his style, of scaling up a cheap, commonplace image (most notably graphic art in comics), he explored it thoroughly.

We get ‘pop’ versions of Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian and others; ‘pop’ versions of nudes, landscapes and still life, and so on.

A room alternating early and late abstract works made me wonder whether Lichtenstein had any talent for colour harmony. The later paintings are at least in his distinctive style, whereas the earlier are routine abstract expressionism, but in both the colours are too vivid, too clashing.

I suspect a direct comparison with his powerful precursor Mondrian, would emphasise the relative ugliness of the later artist’s distribution of colour.

Whether an ugly style or not, in isolation, the immediate effect of the art is playful, irreverent. In an exhibition that aspect is reduced through overexposure, so it becomes possible to more closely examine any message the style communicates.

If the message is supposed to be critical of our society, it doesn’t work. On the other hand, even the least effective works here only hint at the wealth-obsessed, inequality-enforcing vapid bling of the worst of Koons and Hirst. After the first pop artists, the deluge of crap.

But his works are seriously flawed. To take the late nudes as an example, the artist’s variations on modern advertising and preconceptions of a beautiful woman are more fond parody than incisive criticism.

Some charm, then, but the conversation dries up quickly.

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