This was a show that I had put off going to see for quite a while now. Looking online at the pictures featured in the show did not really excite me enough to get out and see it. I’d seen Whaam! before in isolation (it’s part of the Tate collection and will no doubt return once the retrospective show is over) and it didn’t really grab me, arresting as it is. However, with plenty of free time this week it was an ideal time to go see it and I was happy to be proved wrong.
The first few rooms didn’t really turn me on: I found myself pining for the Rauschenberg paintings I’d seen at the Barbican back in March. The sharp austere lines and primary colours did not seem like any match for Rauschenberg’s muted palettes and abstract brush strokes. However, like a good retrospective should, the show hits its stride just as Lichtenstein appears to have done: during his pop period. It was this point that I realised just how disciplined and cohesive every painting from this period is: eventually the austerity makes sense and those eye-bending realms of Benday-dotted primary colour just pop off the canvas.
Those paintings are helped by being enormous and are arranged beautifully in a long room with benches. There are also stands with notes and the original comic book source for Whaam! that are interesting to compare to the finished painting. The paintings make me think about how in Lichtenstein’s work two strands of twentieth century art converge: the modernism of the De Stijl group (the primary colours separated by thick black lines can’t help but bring Mondrian’s compositions to mind) that lead to the abstract expressionism that Lichtenstein had begun by experimenting with, and in the use of everyday objects as subjects, the “ready-made” sculptures of Duchamp. I am fast becoming a big admirer of Duchamp so this was a pleasant revelation. It also helped to tie things in nicely with the “A Bigger Splash” exhibition I went to in March.
The show definitely peaks with those pop art paintings in the large room and with the really beautiful seascapes in the room afterward. After that, the works in homage to previous artists like Picasso and Monet are a worthy attempt to contextualize his painting style in the modern art canon but, for me, the pop art work does that by itself. I really liked some of the homages though, the triptych that is Set 5 of the Rouen Cathedral series is really pretty in person. After that, there were some additional high points like the perfect and imperfect abstractions in Room 10 and the Chinese Landscapes in Room 13, but much of the last half of the show did not seem to add much more. (We can compare this to the Kusama and Miró shows, where there were genuinely stunning pieces later on.)
It should be said that one of the reasons why I enjoyed my visit so much was the fact that actually seeing these paintings is so much better than seeing reproductions of them. All those dots just swim around in front of your eyes especially when they are imitating printed media but at a larger scale – when they are reproduced in the catalogue at nearer to the original size of the comic book sources, much of the impact is lost, not to mention the irony of the Benday dots being reproduced by laser printer pixels. One thinks of Blake’s fleas…
The show runs for another week. I’m going back to Tate Modern later on this week to see the Saloua Raouda Choucair show and I think I will be pretty tempted to nose around the Lichtenstein once more. See it if you can!