Sunday, 5 May 2013

Lichtenstein - A retrospective at the Tate

Finally got to the Lichtenstein exhibition at the Tate.

If you haven't made it yet, you are missing a treat and an education. You have till May 27th at Tate Modern, or you'll have to chase the exhibition to Centre Pompidou.

Lichtenstein was a systematic artist if ever there was one. Once he alights on comic book images as a target he experiments with elements of comic book printing in a way that develops and persists throughout his subsequent career. You can clearly see his development as you move through the rooms.

Of course, it's the comic book images that attract most of us and like most paintings they are significantly better in the original than they are in reproduction. Not least because you can see how he produced all those dots and how geometrically perfect they are in their arrangement. Just like they had been printed ...

You have to stand at the right distance to get the effect the artist was trying to achieve and since some of the paintings are very large indeed that distance can only be achieved by experiment but for me it was about one and a half times the diagonal of the painting. This gives the beginnings of the optical illusion that comic makers relied upon while retaining the irony that the artist wanted to achieve. The dots vary in size and pitch and get more sophisticated in their effect as time goes on.

Lichtenstein also sought inspiration from the works of other artists including Mondrian, Matisse and Picasso and makes reference to them in many of his later works. The irony of these references are part of the charm in the paintings. A Mondrian, for example, where the grey (or off-white) of a couple of the colour fields is achieved by suitably small dark blue Benday dots on a white ground. As you approach the painting, it looks for all the world like (a very clean) Mondrian, till you reach that point where the comic-book optical illusion fails, and you see the dots. You can't help but smile ...

It was another Mondrian inspired work that caught my eye, for good and bad reasons (hence the education).


The painting is Plus and Minus 1988 which is evocative of Mondrian's oval paintings usually considered to be of water and jetties. Lichtenstein formalises the impression by a regular arrangement of bars (minus-signs) and carries over the Mondrian illusion of water by choosing to paint these bars in shades that merge with the background, thus appearing misty.

For once the illusion is better in print than it is in the original (this was the bad reason it caught my eye). This is because  printing brightens the rather faded colours and thus enhances the optical illusion.

But then Lichtenstein applies the same pattern of blocks in later paintings (e.g Interior with Water Lilies, 1991) thus giving us ironic references within ironic references (this was the good reason it caught my eye).. How he must have smiled when he thought of that ...

Finally, at the last of the rooms we come to what are perhaps the most memorable of the paintings in the whole show. These are beautiful Chinese landscapes with Lichtenstein's signature Benday dots used to the most subtle effect, an effect that shows the maturity of the artist. These were among the last paintings that the artist can have done and will be the lasting image in my mind of an artist that transcends Modern Art.