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Lichtenstein: A Retrospective

Published by Liana Tarling on 26-Mar-2013 Art, Fashion
Tags: lichtenstein

The swinging sixties are back with a WHAAM! In fashion, design and at the Tate gallery London, where the exhibit Roy Lichtenstein: a retrospective, proudly hangs.

The first full retrospective of the prevalent pop artist in over twenty years, brings together 120 of his widely celebrated works - worth an estimated 1.12 billion pounds – in a celebration of the cultural icon, maverick and master of American pop art.

A critic from Life magazine infamously described Lichtenstein as ‘one of the worst artists in America.’ He was rendered degenerate, kitschy and undeserving of the title ‘artist.’ Today, Lichtenstein is hailed as the man who took the banal and made it brilliant and helped to make modern art mainstream.

The exhibition chronicles the development of Lichtenstein’s work and submerges the spectator in 1950’s/1960’s post war America which was revelling in a newfound economic prosperity, brazenly obvious through the numerous new cars, suburban homes and consumer goods acquired by the masses. Advertising and the mass media steadily became a standard in U.S daily life and a dominant influence upon modern day society - themes ever present in Lichtenstein’s work.

Lichtenstein ripped every day, meaningless consumables from the pages of newspapers and mail order catalogues and blew them up to epic proportions to create art like never before. The isolated objects, such as a can of hairspray, a radio and a ball of twine, all of which are present at the Tate, lay bare upon the canvas as flat and mechanical representations of materialistic America. The objects are accentuated by his infamous black outlines and signature benday dots, a technique employed by newspapers and magazines that give his paintings an automated air, as though they have been churned out in mass reproduction. In a dehumanised society which valued the product above the person, Lichtenstein creates a detached, blunt and to some extent bland painting, where the focus is placed entirely upon the object.

As you move around the exhibition it becomes strikingly obvious that the highlight of Lichtenstein’s work are his iconic comic strip paintings which satirise gender stereotypes and represent mass popular culture. Dramatic close-ups of female faces portray women as hapless, hopeless individuals who are unable to control the outcome of their fate and are in desperate need of saving by all American men of war. Through this, Lichtenstein appears as a provocative agent offering a cultural criticism of society, and an advocate for liberation from the constricting, capitalist, consumer culture.

Simultaneously New York art dealer, Leo Castelli, proposed to represent Lichtenstein and his work became an overnight sensation. However as his notoriety grew, the message behind his artwork becomes contentious as he began to profit from the popularity of his work and became an influential force on popular culture. Looking at the familiar pictures that lined the walls of the Tate, I became uncertain whether Lichtenstein’s work reinforced and supported mass media, glorifying materialism, or, if they hung as a vehement reaction against it.

Lichtenstein tried to remove all traces of himself from his art work, to the extent of removing his signature from the canvas in an attempt to pass himself off as the invisible man. However, we feel him ever present in his work due to his distinctly recognisable style. The retrospective displays Lichtenstein’s later abstractions and Chinese landscapes which, people say, represents a new direction and different aspect to his work. Or, is it simply a desperate attempt to step away from the brand that he created out of America’s clichéd culture in an ironic depiction of the world?

These later works are quickly glanced over and dwindle from interest, disappearing from memory like the pop aspect of his work that is missing from the canvas, erased with the dark outlines that originally brought him notoriety.

Lichtenstein’s work was born from the times and made in reaction to all that was criticised about America, however, that in turn is what made him famous and what he is fondly remembered for.

Perhaps he became trapped by his style, a prisoner of popular culture that was swallowed by the all-consuming mouth of consumption. Today it to spits him out in art, fashion and design, and will continue to do so for decades to follow.

We applaud his work, but perhaps, this is its biggest downfall.

Liana Tarling graduated from Manchester University where she studied English and Drama and is currently employed as an editorial assistant.

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