Contradiction abounds in the art world. I’ve ranted about it before so I’ll try not to bore you again, but suffice it to say that as one person’s rubbish is another person’s gold, and one purporter of criminal damage is another local council’s Banksy, the art world is no different from the rest of the world in its embrace of hypocrisy. So why was I surprised to find the same bizarre situation arising again at the Tate Modern with Lichtenstein? I suppose surprised is the wrong word, bemused may be more appropriate. Bemused by the revering of Lichtenstein and his comic strip reproductions not because I consider them unworthy (though who am I to say), but because the art world deems then more so than their original incarnations.
I have always liked Lichtenstein, seeing his images in books was always a bright, colorful, smile-inducing experience. I copied one of his pieces for my GCSE art coursework. Actually, he was a favourite for that role, as I remember many of my classmates did too (spot the irony). His pieces were comparably easy to replicate accurately, next to say, a Turner and were bold and fun to create, with thick black outline and flat colour fill. Wandering around the huge Tate retrospective I initially enjoyed the sense of immersion in American pop culture, but it wasn’t just the repetitive aesthetics that began to make me restless as I swept past great sections, eager for a shift in momentum. The show was causing an uneasiness in me, a niggling feeling that once again the system has committed an injustice. The art system can’t do fair. Just like any other system, there are winners and losers, much of it down to luck and a lot of it down to connections. If everyone were a winner then everyone would be equal and, gasp!, what would the world possibly be like without inequality!?
Lichtenstein is revered in his status as iconic pop artist, yet made his name essentially transposing others’ designs. OK, he wasn’t a ‘straight copyist’, as Tate dutifully reminds us, but he did take quite a lot more than influence for his pieces, often only marginally altering their composition or form. So why are the original artists, those cartoon designers and others since, awarded no critical kudos for their works? Why are their designs only lauded in the hands of someone else? Someone who, granted, put them on a canvas via the medium of paint. Is that the nub of it? Gallery-friendly? Given the status of paint and a large canvas it becomes high art rather than lowly design. I would be utterly, wearisomely un-shocked were that the sole truth of it, but it is also largely down to fashion, Banksy being the current prime example of this. The first graffiti artist to be accepted by the art world, his pieces selling for millions while other, sometimes much better, street art is still being painted over by humourless local councils. Theoretically laughable, but it is the case. Like his contemporary, Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein was seen to be inviting a dialogue about the relationship between fine art and commercialism. Pieces such as Portable Radio, creating confusion between painting and object, are striking and reminiscent in general of the pop art movement. However while Warhol’s work was often explicitly tongue in cheek and provocative, baiting the crowds with its charismatic allure, Lichtenstein’s pieces seem dry in comparison, a less stimulating and shallower format through which to start debate.
His explorations into medium and style proved more attractive to my own sensibilities. Earlier ‘Brushstrokes’ pieces straddle the boundaries of graphics and abstraction, merging into a unique form which doesn’t quite fit into our standard categories. His landscapes series particularly, is intriguing, utilising his self-defined ‘depiction of the grand gesture’ style to produce works such as Seascape, 1965, which challenge the traditional importance of fluidity and blend of colouration in the portrayal of a landscape scene. Other experiments left me lukewarm. His re-imagining of well-known paintings felt decidedly GCSE and dealt me a little internal cringe, his mirror paintings and geometric pieces didn’t inspire and the late nudes, well, no. At the end of the show, however, my interest was re-ignited firstly by some more abstract pieces and then by a set of peaceful Chinese landscapes. In a bizarre result which defied my expectation, Lichtenstein’s concentrated abstraction somehow achieves a delicate balance when paired with eastern stylistic forms. Rather beautiful in fact and a satisfyingly poignant way to finish a show which minutes earlier I was hoping for the end of.