Roy Lichtenstein at the Hayward Gallery

Here’s a paradox for you. While Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop Art masterpieces are very familiar to most of us — the Ben Day dots, the primary colours, the speech bubbles with their breathless all-caps content — we know it almost entirely through popular culture’s re-appropriation of it — not only of its style (now full of 1960s retro-charm) and its palette (a lost reference to printing technologies that haven’t now existed for decades), but of its self-consciously cool, archly ironic tone. Having made a career for himself by borrowing avidly and openly from mass media, Lichtenstein seems somehow to have been subsumed back into it — delivered from Leo Castelli, ArtForum and MoMA back into the stuff of advertising, graphic design and cheap popular print from which his imagery had sprung. The only difference is that those who now propagate Lichtenstein’s classic leitmotifs are not only enjoying all those eternally enjoyable Pop Art qualities — the ease of reproduction, the demotic quality of the images, the smooth finish — but also now a thick veneer of art-historical credibility. Such work reassures us that the person who bought it both likes and understands modern art. The fact that this art will soon celebrate its 50th birthday only reassures us further, by showing that it has passed the test of time. No wonder the market for Lichtenstein-influenced greeting cards is such a lively one.

But given how well Lichtenstein’s work reproduces — one basic if banal reason for its promiscuous reproductive success — is there any point in going along to the Hayward Gallery’s Roy Lichtenstein to see the real thing? Emphatically so — and not just for the well-stocked exhibition gift-shop, either.

This is not, incidentally, quite the long-awaited Lichtenstein ‘retrospective’ that some sloppier reviews, and for that matter the gallery’s own PR materials, have claimed it is. Nor is it, in the words of its curator, ‘the essential Lichtenstein’. Rather, it is an exhibition of some really famous, first-rate Lichtenstein canvases and some interesting material suggesting how these might have been created — bulked up with lesser-known late work that, while interesting enough in its own way, is by no means essential viewing. The decision not to show any of Lichtenstein’s sculpture may strike many people as a strange and regrettable one — think how good some of that stuff might have looked in the Hayward’s roof-top sculpture garden! The most bizarre omission, though, is the failure to show more than three examples of Lichtenstein’s work from the period leading up to his 1961 ‘breakthrough’. The major work simply appears out of nothing — WHAAM! And this, in turn, makes it that much more difficult to get a grip on what Lichtenstein was doing when he created those early masterpieces of Pop Art — let alone, why they made the impact they did at the time.

In 1968, when the last major London-based Lichtenstein show took place, this context would perhaps have been far more obvious. It would have been no surprise to learn that Lichtenstein had spent years trying, but failing, to make a name as an Abstract Expressionist — isn’t that, after all, what most American artists were doing at the time? Nor would his sojourns as an engineering draughtsman, graphic designer and (like Andy Warhol) department store window-dresser have startled anyone unduly, since in a climate where failed de Koonings were hardly thin on the ground, the need to make a living commended expedients which, if faintly embarrassing, were at least understandable. European viewers might perhaps not even have been shocked to discover his brief false start as a ‘realistic’, narrative painter. These things happen. In 1968, a shrewd sense of the orthodoxy against which Lichtenstein eventually pitched himself would have been — like his famously proto-Pop Ten Dollar Bill of 1956, also not included here — common currency.

But while it is not longer possible to take for granted this degree of sympathy, context is as essential to an understanding of Lichtenstein’s work now as it was thirty-six years ago — perhaps even more so. ‘All my art is in some way about other art, even if the other art is cartoons,’ Lichtenstein once said — and he was right. All his art is about art, not really about life, which makes it all the more important to have some sense of what he knew about art — what he liked, what he knew, what influenced him. And since Hayward’s exhibition effectively presents the artist as a fully-grown Modern Master — stripped of history, context and controversy — it’s really a case either of forcing the viewer to fill in the gaps herself, or simply deciding not to mind the gaps in the first place, and to enjoy it all at the level of a greeting-card, mug or mass-produced t-shirt.

But in case you want to bring a little of your own background knowledge to the party, here goes. Roy Lichtenstein was born on Manhattan Island in 1923. From the age of 14 he would regularly drop in on lectures at the Parsons School of Design, and between 1939 and 1943 he studied at the Art Students’ League — overlapping as he did so with Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, and only just missing the spectacular tutorials of Hans Hoffman — studying instead, strangely enough, with the super-demotic Reginald Marsh, whose cheerful trashiness turns up in all sorts of unexpected places, not least in de Kooning’s ghastly, grinning Women. But that’s neither here nor there. In 1943 the Second World War caught up with Lichtenstein. Conscripted into service, he initially trained as a fighter pilot (something it’s hard not to remember when decoding the marvellous Whaam!) before high casualty rates in the Battle of the Bulge intervened, at which point he was sent first to Britain, then to Germany, as an infantryman, where he saw active service. On his return in 1946 he started university at Ohio State, studying art. After receiving an MA in 1949 he started a programme of odd jobs, most art-related. From 1957 he taught in a variety of art departments. Throughout this time, it appears that he was, in stylistic terms, all over the place, producing images of musicians or scenes from fairy tales one day, smeary AbEx pastiches the next, a bit of regionalism here and a bit of proleptic proto-Pop there — ‘finding his signature style’ as the books would have it. As early as 1958, he began to experiment with comic-book and cartoon imagery, albeit handled in a gestural, expressionistic mode. By 1961 he had happened upon those stalwarts of the graphic art of the time, Ben Day dots. And the rest, if not exactly history, is the rather gappy stuff of the Hayward Gallery’s exhibition.

The point, though, is this. In 1961, by the time Leo Castelli began taking an interest in Lichtenstein, the artist was 38 years old. Heaven only knows how many hours of art history lectures he’d attended — how many days he’d spent amidst the great art collections of New York City — how many canvasses had been primed, painted, scratched out, repainted and discarded — how many false starts Lichtenstein had seen and lamented. And the reason for making this point is simply that, here and now, it is too frequently assumed by people who should know better that Pop Art came out of an America of cheerfully fat, proselytizing post-war prosperity — an America free of history or irony, self-knowledge or an interest in what happened beyond its comfortable, commercialized, classless and mindless shores. The idea is that Pop Art was stupid art for stupid people — ‘so American’ as someone said to me the other day (not meaning any harm) in its ignorant dissolution of the boundaries between high art and low culture. So if you take one thing away from this review, I devoutly hope that you will see that whatever else it was, Pop Art was none of these things. Indeed, more than anything else, Pop Art was an art world joke — an elitist jeu d’esprit whose punch line would have made no sense to anyone not thoroughly marinated not only in the earnest self-importance of Abstract Expressionism but in some pretty snide assumptions about the vapid worthlessness of popular culture, too. Or to put it another way, saying ‘look, I can make a strong formal composition out of anything — even crap like this!’ looks less like an act of throwing down one’s chips on the side of the man in the street, and more like an innovative and faintly clever way of teasing people who’d read too much Clement Greenberg. It was probably no accident that the first fans of Pop were not ‘normal’ people, but rather consummate art-world insiders.

And this, in a way, is perhaps the greatest weakness of Lichtenstein’s work. It can look too cold, too arch — almost post-modern in places, although without that pervasive strain of pointless unpleasantness that runs everywhere through the high art of our own times. Robert Hughes was right when he semi-damned it as ‘academic’. But then it is repetitious, too. It seems fair to say that, in a longish lifetime of work (he died in 1997 at the age of 74) Lichtenstein had approximately one and a half good ideas. Well, that is one and a half more than most artists ever have, so perhaps one should not judge him too harshly for this.

All of which brings us, more or less, back to the selection of works on show in the beautiful raw concrete spaces of the Hayward Gallery, as spacious and cleverly-lit as ever. It is hard to image anywhere in Britain, let alone London, where Pop Art looks so good. The place enshrines a faint memory — a benign and gentle haunting — of the sort of Festival of Britain greyness and Cold War chill that oversaw its birth, and that somehow lends Lichtenstein’s colour, bold compositions and extravagant scale a frisson not available elsewhere, rather as it did with that fantastic Bacon show in the late 1990s. Hung at generous intervals, the paintings can be viewed from a distance, obliquely or directly, as well as close up, which matters a lot in the case of a work like Rouen Cathedral Set V (1969), a joke about Monet that also happens, almost incidentally, to be slyly magnificent in its own right. It is, in short, delightful to have the Hayward back in service. Despite everything I write about Lichtenstein here, or more accurately because of it, the need for a major exhibition of his work was a real and pressing one, and although I have a few complaints about the selection of work on show, it is almost impossible to see how what was there could have been displayed more intelligently, attractively or sympathetically.

The buzz, needless to say, is confined to the first few rooms — those on first level and a half of the exhibition. Almost as soon as we enter, we are confronted with Whaam! (1963). This relatively modest-sized diptych, based on an action comic but much modified in its translation to fine art, depicts a USAF fighter firing a close range at an enemy aircraft, producing a satisfyingly stylised explosion — Whaam!. In formal terms it is elegant and successful, but — not for the last time in this exhibition — it also raises questions about how seriously we are meant to be taking its narrative content. 1963 was, after all, a year in which Vietnam loomed increasingly large in American consciousness, not least in university circles, and I can’t believe that this rather arch celebration of American airpower didn’t make a sort of direct hit all its own. In general, though, while the first room contains a generous helping of ‘classic’ Lichtensteins, the emphasis is entirely on art-world jokes. Image Duplicator shows a cartoon villain, furious that someone has discovered his image duplicator. Another, cutely titled Masterpiece (1962) shows a pretty girl cooing over her painter boyfriend’s latest work, assuring him that soon the New York art world will be clamouring for his work. In this climate, even Standing Rib (1962) starts to look like a self-evident homage to Chardin more than, say, a quote from a newspaper advertisement. And so on, and so on. These works are, in general, full of the sort of charm that comes out of fresh wit and frank good humour. Better still, several of them actually remain very funny — more so, incidentally, when seen at full size, in what is so obviously hand-applied paint, in a gallery context. Unlike Warhol’s work, which always seems to me to be diminished by face-to-face encounters, Lichtenstein’s painting thrives on contact. You really do have to be there.

There are strong works in the rooms that follow — but fewer and fewer as one moves through the basically chronological hang. The basic joke, though, stands firm. Lichtenstein works patiently through a lot of more or less obvious art-historical references — Monet, Leger, the classic AbEx fetish of the gestural brushstroke — rendering each of them in some amusingly jarring, commercial art-type way. In places, where the joke wears thin, Lichtenstein’s own obsession begins to show through. He was, it appears, completely obsessed — again, to a strangely post-modern degree — with the arbitrariness of the conventions through which Western Art renders a three-dimensional world of experience onto a two-dimensional surface of optical perception. And of course he’s right — this code is, indeed, arbitrary and strange. His favourite instance of this whole issue of codified visual language seems to have revolved around the way in which an oblong, say, with a couple of diagonal slashes across it instantly signals to us ‘mirror’, despite the fact that it does not look much like a mirror and has none of the actual qualities of a mirror, such as depth and the ability to reflect images. Elsewhere, he has a mild sort of fun with the depiction of cartoon-like interior spaces, in which small signature works of his are displayed — raising the obvious questions about the differences between the actual work and a paintings of it.

So, are you rolling around on the floor in hysterical mirth yet? What, no belly-laughs? But this is, in any event, rather delicate, specialist humour, underpinned here and there by a strangely attractive strand of earnestness. So many contemporary artists seem to congratulate themselves on believing in nothing (whereas, of course, the whole fact that they consider nihilism as preferable to the alternative frantically signals a whole host of beliefs, some very hoary indeed, under which these same artists are labouring) it comes as a pleasant surprise to see, there with the self-deprecating humour, something very like a belief in the ability of art to help people understand their world — one tiny aspect of it, anyway. But then it has to be said that Lichtenstein also comes across, very clearly, as an extremely pleasant, likeable, humane sort of person, never taking himself too seriously, and always experimenting, trying to grow, even when he might have been best advised to keep hoeing the same productive furrow. Why, I wonder, do Pop artists seem in general to be so much more well-balanced — even that home-loving, church-going curiosity Andy Warhol — than the Abstract Expressionists?

But then that question, however frivolous it might sound, leads to one final point, which in turn takes us back to that yawning gulf that separates intention from actual impact. Put simply, because at the technical level Pop Art required a degree of cold-blooded professionalism — you had to be able to suppress brushstrokes, to keep colour consistent, to paint within the lines — it was not an obvious career choice for the drunks, egomaniacs and madmen who delivered to America her one great indigenous style. Rather than requiring the artist to disgorge his nethermost emotional truths onto canvas, Pop art required a suppression of individuality not unlike that of the assembly-line or soul-destroying 9-to-5 office job. Abstract Expressionism, born alongside the triumph of mass-production, took orgiastic and sticky pleasure in its own handmade exclusivity, whereas Pop Art radiated a secure, glacial, second-generation certainty — the handmade quality was assumed, taken for granted, so much so that it seemed best to hide it completely. By the time that Lichtenstein established his international reputation, Art had fought so completely free from Life that it could even risk a little bit of recognisable content, a soupçon of narrative, safe in the knowledge that no one would take it the least bit seriously. Safe in its white-walled galleries or in the homes of the shyly appreciative super-rich, Pop Art could make all the jokes it wanted at the expense of ordinary people and what passed for the visual culture.

And yet, and yet … for all its indestructible self-assurance, Pop Art was born with a congenital defect inherent in its relationship with the actual popular culture — a defect perhaps best summed up by the simple truth that as the years go by, it becomes increasingly difficult to know how one’s carefully-conceptualised, delicately-nuanced work is going to be read — especially once it escapes the secure confines of the blue-chip private galleries and major public collections. Lichtenstein may have made art that was entirely about art, but looking at his most important work more than a generation after it burst upon a delighted art world, I can’t help but wonder whether part of the reason it has secured such a comfortable half-life of public recognition for itself lies exactly in all the qualities that Lichtenstein would have found most alien — the craft-conscious professionalism of that smooth finish, the strong ad-type images, the approachability and innate interest of the narrative — perhaps even the perceived freedom from the need for art-historical knowledge, archness and tribal superiority. And then there’s nostalgia, that universal solvent ensuring that everything, no matter what, seems rather sweet and appealing and harmless as long as it’s been impotent or absent for long enough — how can Lichtenstein even begin to defend himself against the cloying attentions of retro-chic?

For what attracted Leo Castelli and the boys and girls of ArtForum to these works need not be the same thing that today, in London in 2004, makes a 30-something Clerkenwell confirmed bachelor with a well-paid job in PR decide that a framed Lichtenstein poster is the right choice for his expensive loft space, or makes the editorial assistant on her rushed lunch-hour choose the Lichtenstein joke card from the Victoria Street Paperchase as the right farewell for her soon-to-go-elsewhere senior colleague. Irony may not, after all, be the unfailing prophylactic against earnestness that its more other-worldly cheerleaders all too often believe it to be. Many of the reasons that Lichtenstein’s work is still appreciated today are reasons he’d have most disliked, albeit in his mild, self-deprecating sort of way. Still, being liked is no small tribute in itself. The Hayward exhibition may enrich the quality of our relationship with this rather limited, repetitive, obviously second-rate yet strangely endearing artist. What it will not, and indeed cannot do, however, is to dent the slow decay into genuinely popular culture that afflicts, and will continue to afflict, his carefully-thought-out, intelligent, perhaps completely doomed High Art.

Roy Lichtenstein runs at the Hayward Gallery from 26 February until 16 May 2004.

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