The current Roy Lichtenstein In Focus exhibition is the latest in Tate Liverpool’s in-depth looks at some of the greats of modern and contemporary art. Lichtenstein’s large-scale, comic book style pieces – and the Ben-Day dots technique, which he helped to popularise – came to be closely identified with the explosion of pop art in the 60s, alongside Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. Whaam!, one of his most famous pieces, is on show in Liverpool for the first time since 1993, after being restored to its 1963 glory.
Looking at the breadth and impact of the art on show – which includes some examples of his early interest in landscapes, and his subsequent fascination for advertising – we were interested to get the perspective of what Lichtenstein’s body of work means from an artist’s point of view. So, we asked two of our regular contributors, both designers and illustrators, to give us their own views on what Lichtenstein – and, indeed, pop art – means to them. Mook Loxley has interpreted some of Lichtenstein’s famous comic-style imagery in this illustration – and Nick Booton (Bruï Studio) spoke with one of Tate’s curatorial team to give an overall perspective on the exhibition.
When I was approached to write something around Tate’s Lichtenstein exhibition, the thing that attracted me to it was the idea of using my own artwork as a response and conversation around the influence of these themes, particularly in the way that visual artists work now. There are a lot of interesting points that come out of looking at these types of shows because they can be quite divisive in some ways, almost a commodity in itself, but I think that idea is quite relevant now.
After speaking with Tate’s Darren Pih, one of the angles I was struck by was this idea of Lichtenstein’s work being cyclical, in that it commented on the use of advertising and mass media but then became so well known that it almost came back into ownership of the public realm and is mimicked itself within advertising campaigns today. Darren referenced a Specsavers ad on a bus that was in a Lichtenstein style, then immediately after the interview I saw some Northern Rail adverts that hi-jacked Lichtenstein’s distinctive style too. I guess the idea of parody and ownership is a chicken and egg type situation.
Art and design are merging in the online world and the way people (inter)act on social media is almost like a brand. Artists are curators of modern life, choosing what is relevant, humorous or valuable and finding ways to reflect these ideas through visual collage. I think the idea of the artist as observer of modern life is reinforced when we focus on mundane and overlooked ideas because they take an extra level of attention and intuition to understand the value in them. This all stems from the pop art movement and lifestyle artists in New York: their influence is major, particularly now, so it’s a good time to discuss their work in a modern context.
Could you quickly introduce yourself, and explain your role in curating this exhibition at Tate Liverpool.
My name is Darren Pih, Exhibitions and Displays Curator at Tate Liverpool. I curated the Lichtenstein display, which essentially brings together works from the Artists Rooms collection, which is a collection of single rooms of works, including artists such as Andy Warhol, Martin Creed and Louise Bourgeois. Essentially it consists of 20 works from the early 1960s until the end of [Lichtenstein’s] career in the late 90s, really showcasing his major themes and preoccupations, as well as his use of drawing on readymade imagery and comic imagery.
With such a vast archive to pull from, how have you selected these specific works and what aspects do they communicate about his practice?
Lichtenstein’s interesting because he had a sort of pre-career. He was a tutor and an abstract painter in the 1950s, but I think it had to be a survey of the range of subject matter, whether that be war comics, romantic comics, still life or his later nude series.
You can definitely see the influence of comic strips throughout his career. When he was searching through reference material, what was the essence that he was trying to pick out of the comic frames?
He was selecting an image that was already an emotionally charged moment or which somehow summarised a narrative that was ambiguous, and it was a heightened moment of high tension or drama. It’s sort of false as well, somehow, and rendered in an impersonal style with the way he used this language of painted dots and stripes.
Removing the visible brush stroke from his work, it’s an almost mechanical reproduction of images, so what value would people get from seeing this in person rather than through widely dispersed images online?
I think it’s that oscillation between them being machine-made and man-made. There’s an ambiguity in the dots, they’re not perfect and they kind of spill beyond the canvas. That’s the power of the work: they’re cheap and expensive, formulaic and inventive. It’s ready-made and hand-made.
He seemed to embrace mechanical processes and new technology, for instance in the use of projectors to scale his images up. Would you say in this age he would have worked digitally?
Definitely, I would think so. There was a sense in which he was removed from the touch of the artist, I think that was a process he was working towards. A painted pop brush stroke is really the ultimate statement of removing yourself. Then it becomes something that is dispersed and democratised, and somehow universally meaningful.
He does tend to use a language of images we instantly recognise, scenes of non-descript romance or banal household objects. What does he see in these subjects and why are they presented at such size and scale?
I think it was responding to the ubiquitous power of billboards, of Hollywood and the silver screen, which was forging a new language of painting that was larger in scale. The source of the image would have been minor and very insignificant and then to monumentalise it asserts the truth of the artificial; mass mediated images are somehow of a new nature, it becomes a new landscape.
It’s playfully ironic that there was a higher monetary value to his larger paintings, this scaling up almost correlated with the criticism of consumerism.
Ha ha, yes!
So, he moved back to New York around the early 60s, did city life have an impact on artists like him who may have been moving away from Abstract Expressionism at the time?
I’ve no doubt that it did, it [New York] was the centre of the art world in the early 60s. Art was moving away from something that is interior, this Rothko idea of spiritual truth, and it was becoming reflective of something in the world. Art was changing, it became live, it became performative, it became a critical reflection of mass media and a subject matter.
I know Lichtenstein described advertising as “a new force”, maybe something to be wary of, which would explain his fascination with the language of consumer marketing.
It was kitsch as well, he was drawn to cliché subjects. I saw a Specsavers advert on the side of a bus and it was rendered using the Ben-Day dots, it looked like a Lichtenstein. It’s almost gone full circle, pop art in turn begins to influence the language in commercial advertising.
With his subversion of text and image from mass media sources I wonder if we can see the influence of his one-hit compositions in today’s meme culture, which interestingly, is heavily informing the landscape of advertising.
I think they’re not unrelated. I think with pop art especially there is this sort of re-dispersal: you’re taking very low vernacular images and then making them monumental and meaningful and that’s not unrelated to the use of memes. It’s the power of the image and I think there’s something quite ironic about Lichtenstein.
He does talk about the separation between himself and the America he was representing in his images. Do you think the digital age has increased the cultural gap between the artist and the subject?
I think it’s necessary to critically stand apart and just to be part of the flux. Maybe that’s not such an interesting thing to be but I think, in a way, Lichtenstein’s work is symptomatic of the use of technology, acceleration of life and the proliferation of mass media imagery, I think his work is almost like a short hand for that. In the age of car crash and catastrophe images, paradoxically people want to see that stuff, which is how newspapers sell. But, actually, if it’s mass reproduced it loses its charge, you become immune to it – and how do we bring back the emotional connection?
Maybe it’s not so much the artist’s hand but the artist’s eye where the value lies and he’s able to bring back a human element to these images. When he came under criticism over authorship from comic cartoonists, they put on their own pop art exhibition to demonstrate how easy it was to emulate, but instead their paintings fell short, maybe lacking this element.
There have been many examples of questions about originality and authorship, that’s why I think Duchamp responded [Duchamp defended criticisms around authorship by playing up his work’s avant-garde and often obscene nature]. He could see what was going on and he could see he was part of this lineage.
Do you think rather than the act of painting, it was Lichtenstein’s assemblage of ideas, applicable to a multi-disciplinary audience, that has helped maintain its relevance up until now?
Of course he is an artist who has had a huge influence on graphics and interior design so I think you can see he’s an artist whose influence could go beyond art. I think he’s still relevant because it shows how an artist was responding to his age. How do we make sense of this proliferation, this changing state of images in the world, how do you create? It’s about removing yourself from the flux of mass media and being able to ironically make sense of it and to see it for what it is.
Artist Rooms: Roy Lichtenstein In Focus is on show at Tate Liverpool until 17th June, and entrance is free. Bido Lito! Members will enjoy a Curator’s tour around the exhibition on 7th March – full details on how to sign up can be found here.