I think it'd be fair to say that Roy Lichtenstein, a major exhibition of whose work just opened at Tate Modern, is more popular with the general public than with the critics. A Lichtenstein poster is ubiquitous bedsit material - bright and colourful, yet also signalling your familiarity with the modern art world. Street artists pay homage, in the knowledge that everyone will be aware of the original. And the show, at least according to Tate Modern, is pulling 'em in. It was certainly crowded when I went last week.
The attitude of the critics, on the other hand, can be summed up in the phrase used by James Fox in the Times (£): Lichtenstein's a one-trick pony. He had the one idea and repeated it for 40 years:
With the help of the celebrated New York dealer Leo Castelli, Lichtenstein’s pictures sold like pop-cakes from the start. He became rich and famous overnight. And he was never afraid to offer his services to the highest bidder. In fact, his very last commission was to design a logo for DreamWorks Records. Moreover, since his death the demand for his work has only increased. Last year one of his paintings fetched $44.8 million. Was this a genuine reflection of its quality? Or could it have been just another expensive addition to a shiny office lobby?
In fact, everyone can own a Lichtenstein now. In the Tate shop you can buy Lichtenstein cushions, Lichtenstein coffee cups, Lichtenstein cufflinks, Lichtenstein laptop cases and Lichtenstein T-shirts. This in itself isn’t alarming. What’s alarming is how good his pictures look reproduced on such products. One could be forgiven for thinking that it was their destiny all along. We’re told his art was an indictment of capitalist consumption, yet now it lends itself happily to its own commodification. Lichtenstein’s paintings have become little more than an advertisement for the merchandise on which they are emblazoned.
This isn’t Lichtenstein’s fault, of course. It’s our fault. It’s the fault of a society that prefers the gift shop to the exhibition; the poster to the original; the shiny surface to the hidden treasure.
In the Tate exhibition there is a room filled with such shiny surfaces. They are beautiful, haunting paintings of mirrors — the best pictures Lichtenstein ever made. For me, the most haunting thing about them is their emptiness. I stared into each of those mirrors hoping, vainly, for a glimpse of myself, a glimpse of anything. But nothing came; nothing but a vacant reflection. And I think that’s when I finally understood:
it’s not Lichtenstein who’s vacuous;
Well of course he doesn't really mean that. He means: it's you. You're vacuous. He - James Fox - isn't vacuous. He sees through the hype because he's an art critic. But it would seem a touch, well, arrogant, just to come out and say that.
Alastair Smart at the Telegraph has the same reaction:
Lichtenstein duly became a brand, lucrative but repetitive; a one-trick wonder, seemingly intent – after his long, early years as an outsider – to stick with a winning formula once he’d found it.
It's easy to understand, of course, this critical consensus. It must have been a eureka moment for the young Lichtenstein, back at the start of the Sixties when he was a struggling artist - and at 37 in 1960 not that young either - trying to make a name for himself in the heady days of Abstract Expressionism, when one of his sons pointed to a Mickey Mouse comic book and said; "I bet you can't paint as good as that, eh, Dad?" Bingo! That year, 1961, he produced his first Pop Art work, Look Mickey, and in the same year produced six other works with recognizable characters from gum wrappers and cartoons. He was up and running. Suddenly he had a style - the thick outlines, bold colors and Ben-Day dots, as if created by photographic reproduction. His work was instantly recognisable. Never again would he have to sit in front of his easel, with furrowed brow, searching for inspiration. The whole world was out there, waiting to be given the Lichtenstein comic-book treatment.
So yes, it's easy to see him as glib, compared to the great names of New York Abstract Expressionism, like, say Mark Rothko, whose brown and purple splodges of colour were seemingly dragged agonisingly from deep within his soul; who couldn't bear for his Seagram works to be displayed in a restaurant; who finally killed himself in his studio. Compared to Rothko, yes, Lichtenstein does seem a bit of a light-weight.
Also, there's the fact that Lichtenstein's easy to get. Just about anyone can see what it's about. And critics hate that. What they want is to be given the opportunity to demonstrate why they're art critics and you're just some dumb schmuck who doesn't know much about art but knows what he likes. If they started lecturing us about how Lichtenstein is commenting on mass reproduction and popular culture, we'd say, well of course he is.
That's one mark against the man. Another may be that, despite all the attempts to portray his art as somehow critical of the popular culture of the times, and by extension of the rampant greedy capitalism of post-war America etc. etc. together with the sexual stereotypes of those ditsy romantic blondes and macho soldiers from the comic books, it's fairly clear that Lichtenstein, far from mounting a biting critique of US imperialism, was in fact celebrating rather than condemning the sheer vibrancy and energy of the visual world he lived in - of New York in the Sixties. Of course he maintained an ironic distance, but he was no revolutionary, no radical subversive - except in the sense that he saw popular culture as a suitable subject for high art.
And the "one-trick pony" criticism hardly stands up to scrutiny. What? - compared to Rothko, with his trademark slabs of colour? - or Jackson Pollock, with his instantly recognisable drips and squiggles?
In fact the Tate show demonstrates above all what an intelligent artist Lichtenstein was, and how well he used his "one trick" style throughout his career, not just in the familiar comic book works, but also in his take on modern masters like Picasso and Matisse, and even, at the end of his life, in his Chinese landscapes. Imagine, that rarity: an artist who seems to have been happily creative throughout his career; who was fascinated with the mechanics of painting and how to represent three dimensions on a flat canvas; and who produced some gorgeously vivid paintings on the way.
It's a fine exhibition.