No one really invented pop art, as all the ingredients were there already: brightly coloured advertisements, consumer goods, pulp fiction. But when Roy Lichtenstein started to copy images of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse from a kid’s book on to canvas, he not only chanced upon a style that would define much of the art of 1960s America, but he became inextricably linked with his own non-invention.
The way Lichtenstein squeegeed paint through a hole-punched screen – tiny red dots for skin tones and blue for sea or sky – meant that he’d removed the touch of the artist a good two years before Andy Warhol’s typically insouciant statement of 1963: ‘Paintings are too hard. I’d like to be a machine, wouldn't you?’ Although Lichtenstein also dabbled in repetition early on – in household images of a hand buttering toast or trying on a wedding ring – his real breakthrough came in his enlargements of cartoon-strip frames from adventure or romance comic books, and it’s a pleasure to encounter so many of them together in this retrospective.
A machine-gun-wielding hero in ‘Bratatat!’ (1962) might be conversing with the lovelorn blonde in ‘Oh Jeff… I love You, Too…’ (1964). The reference to Lichtenstein’s own, yet-to-be-realised success, in ‘Masterpiece’ (1962) is also superbly witty and yet eerily prescient of the struggle it would cause for his later career.
Because, while it doesn’t end there in a room of explosions and wistful looks – indeed Lichtenstein outlived almost every one of his pop art peers (he died in 1997) – you could happily leave this exhibition at 1965, having seen most of his best work. Of course, it’s a shame to think that an audience will only be interested in the most obvious poster or postcard image of an artist (which is this case is the Tate’s perennial favourite, ‘Whaam!’ of 1963), especially as Lichtenstein produced some knockout landscapes and interiors after the comic-book phase.
The problem is there’s almost no progression in the next 30 years. Lichtenstein rummaged around through art history and produced homages to Picasso and Pollock in his dotty style, then trying out abstraction and even some very pallid Chinese mountain scenes. But he never left his trusty printing pattern behind. ‘I want my painting to look as if it has been programmed,’ Lichtenstein said in 1967. He not only hid the record of his hand, but he lost himself in the process.
The proof of this is in the magnificent room of blank ‘Mirror’ paintings, halfway through. Each oval shape has a glint of glassy reflection but nothing beyond. Lichtenstein’s only self-portrait places one of these empty pools of light where his face should be, giving us the impression that he was happy to play the invisible man of the American art scene.
Only in a small anteroom near the end do we see him trying to blot out his signature style with huge strokes of paint, perhaps trying and failing to exorcise the spot technique once and for all. He was a more serious artist than Warhol, for sure, but perhaps he should have shed his ever-youthful good looks for a bit more soul-searching and maybe pulled those old comics out of the loft every once in a while.