Like many revolutionaries, the late Roy Lichtenstein was at heart a bit of a conservative.
Superficially, his introduction of the graphic formulae of comic books into serious art looks subversive. Actually, as a spectacular new exhibition at London’s Tate Modern makes clear, everything he did was from the most highbrow of motives.
Lichtenstein (1923-1997) was -- as he kept insisting -- not so much a fan of popular culture as that austere thing, a formalist. He was also, if not exactly a late beginner, definitely a late succeeder. It was not until 1961, when he was pushing 40, that he had his breakthrough moment.
Before that, he had been living in the sticks, doggedly producing second-string abstract paintings (and listening, by the way, to Bach and Bebop, not rock’n’roll). Few of those early abstractions are in the exhibition.
Effectively, Lichtenstein’s career as a major artist began one day when his son David came home from school, complaining: All his friends’ fathers had proper jobs, whereas his own was a painter and couldn’t even draw.
To keep him quiet, Lichtenstein did a painting out of a children’s book: Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. The latter is saying, “Look Mickey, I’ve hooked a big one.”
And Lichtenstein himself accidentally stumbled on a big idea: that the dots, solid colors, and simple outlines of commercial art could be used to make sophisticated and subtle paintings. It was a sudden leap into pop.
Within a short time, Lichtenstein was a New York art world sensation. It is from this period in the mid-1960s that most of his best-known images come: the comic book pictures. One of the surprises of the exhibition is that there are not all that many of them. They fill a large gallery under the heading “Love and War.”
Those were his basic themes at that point. There were pictures of conflict including the Tate’s own “Whaam!” (1963): an airplane exploding in a stylized fireball so dynamic it could be dubbed “pop baroque.”
Some of the “love” paintings are actually tongue-in-cheek autobiography: “Why, Brad darling, this painting is a masterpiece!” says the girl in one to an artist with the jaw of Superman. “Soon you’ll have all of New York clamoring for your work” (exactly of course what had happened to Lichtenstein).
In another, a sad blonde muses, “M-Maybe he became ill and couldn’t leave the studio.” And indeed, Lichtenstein must have spent the remaining three decades of his life right there.
While he continued to paint prolifically, little of his later work was even loosely based on comic books.
Instead, with great ingenuity, Lichtenstein tried to apply the comic-book vocabulary, including the color dots of the commercial printing process -- named after their inventor Ben Day -- to all kinds of art that wasn’t pop at all.
That included Lichtensteinized versions of works by predecessors such as Monet and Picasso and of venerable themes including the nude.
Another subject was that fundamental of expressive painting, the thick and fluid brush-stroke -- rendered, paradoxically dead-pan and flat, in dots and heavy outlines.
Lichtenstein seemed to take pleasure in translating the least suitable subjects into his pop-derived language: water, the reflections in mirrors, the misty landscapes of classical Chinese painting, geometrical abstraction.
The results were witty, cerebral and sometimes beautiful. You still go out wondering whether you have been looking at a series of desperate efforts to escape from pop. Those comic book dots and cliches made Lichtenstein as an artist. They were also a self-imposed limitation from which he could not get away.
“Lichtenstein: A Retrospective” is at Tate Modern, Bankside, London, from Feb. 21 to 27 May, sponsored globally by Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Additional support from the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Henry Luce Foundation, the Lichtenstein Exhibition Supporters Group and the American Patrons of Tate.
Information: http://www.tate.org.uk or +44-20-7887-8888.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on opera and Warwick Thompson on U.K. theater.