The retrospective exhibition of the paintings of Roy Lichtenstein dominates the London art scene this month, with posters and billboards, plastic bags and T-shirts everywhere. Lichtenstein occupies a peculiar position in recent art history: less respected than his contemporaries Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg; and less famous than his rival Andy Warhol. This exhibition is a clear attempt to revive the artist as an intellectual heavyweight and to draw attention to the several decades of work normally eclipsed by his iconic pictures of the early 1960’s.
The (arbitrary) limitations that Lichtenstein chose to impose upon himself – block, line, edge and flat colour to the exclusion of all else – are intriguing. Indeed the formal constraints that define the limits of his practice are nearly identical to those of the ukiyo-e artist of Japan – even down to the formal recycling of existing cultural tropes and iconography. The graphic considerations of Japanese prints closely mirror the technical limits of Lichtenstein’s work and as we shall see, he responded to visual art of the far east in paintings made at the very end of his career.
The show itself is vast and comprehensive and whilst much has been made in journals regarding the integrity and relevance of his later work, the paintings of 1962 – 1964 dominate the space through their familiarity, their confidence and their raw energetic strength. The curiosity remains in the final rooms, a series of interrogations of Chinese art: a long series of ambitious paintings that pay homage to the landscape brush paintings of the Song dynasty (960 – 1279). The paintings of the Song dynasty that interested Lichtenstein are in the shan-shui style (shan meaning mountain and shui meaning river); a style deeply connected not only with aesthetics but with philosophy. Taoism stressed the insignificance of man in the cosmos; the detailed, riven images of mountains and rivers with foreground trees stressed the complexity of the universe and man’s place within it.
Lichtenstein’s simplistic interpretations of these necessarily impenetrable paintings are baffling. They appear to show little understanding of the intention or of the underlying aesthetic – seemingly stabbing at an idea of serenity in their mechanical transcription. By using the machined screen of dots that is his signature style, Lichtenstein reduces the complexity of the originals to the language of commodity. There is nothing wrong with that, except that as the exhibition unfolds, one has the nagging feeling that this is not what he intended at all. The paintings which in fact make up the bulk of the show, reveal an artist whose desire to be authentic seeps out of every line, slab and Ben-Day dot. It is currently fashionable to rehabilitate his painting along contemporary art models; a language of painting that has grown around artists like Gary Hume. Unfashionable though it is to talk about intention, it seems that from Lichtenstein’s earliest attempts at a Larry Rivers derived expression, to the tragic but heroic painting of the Laocoon of 1988 (above right), the artist was attempting to emote – a constipated expressionist acutely uncomfortable within his self-imposed cage of dots and devices. This makes the majority of his output as an artist strangely unsettling. He observes the liquid ease of Matisse and Picasso and seeks to codify it, to undress it – but what is the purpose of these uncomfortable goldfish of Matisse or these sexless bathing beauties? Why are these gigantic 1990’s nudes painted in the anachronistic style of a photo-mechanical process, if not to mask an ingrained inability to be engaged?
All of this contrasts harshly with those early cartoon paintings of the 1960’s. The room that contains the paintings Wham! (1963), Drowning Girl (1963), Hopeless (1963) and Bratatat! (1962) is overwhelming. These pictures burst with intention, energy, engagement and excitement; beautiful and powerful, they are also knowing and supremely confident in a way that is lacking from nearly everything else that follows. One senses in these works not only a passion for painting but a deep understanding of picture making and cultural dialogue. This room is one of the most exciting displays of pictures I have seen and easily exceeds the impact of say Warhol’s work of the same years.
These pictures show how process does not necessarily confine. Returning to the art of the far east, I am reminded in Drowning Girl (1963, above left) – the tactile freshness of the edges, the subtle lisp of feeling – of ukiyo-e pictures which make use (necessarily) of the same repertoire of marks and restraint. The picture of the Carpenter Rokusaburo by Kuniyoshi (1852, above right) uses a similar inventive shorthand for the waves that threaten to engulf the figure in the foreground. It is perhaps not fanciful to suppose that the established Japanese signature for water was in some way the ancestor of these American cartoon versions. It is interesting to compare the other shorthands used in both pictures – the sweep of hair, the simplified features which are nevertheless required to show fleeting and complex emotions, the necessary use of flat colour and black key-line and so on. Embedded in tradition, the artists who made Japanese prints were able to remain inventive and engaged with the medium and the subject matter. Anxiety regarding relevance, modernity, expression and so on occurred only at the end of two centuries of confident production. That anxiety which saw the decline of the medium and of the genre, strangely mirrors the work of Lichtenstein over the period of his career. Japanese prints of the early twentieth century share much of the same hesitancy as these later paintings – a searching for subject matter, a failure of touch and so on. As Lichtenstein fails to render anything other than surface from the Song landscapes, so did the later ukiyo-e artists fail to stay in touch with the vital energy of the woodblock tradition.