After a delightful lunch and having been thrown out by an unpleasant clerk from the Courtauld Gallery - apparently their two rooms on Becoming Picasso are having their one-in-a-century success, I decide to head towards the Tate Modern. Lichtenstein, what a bizarre name I remember thinking when, at 12, I heard this name for the first time. A painter with a Family name. Spelling was not my strength at the time
Here again, a huge queue. It is hard to imagine, for a non-English, the power of attraction of orderly queues on the average English man. Fortunately, Schlangen here are more tidy than file there...
After a lousy ticket check, here I am. Inside. I have always liked Lichtenstein, like families in the 80s used to like Dallas. In a friendly and not too serious kind of way. I like his wit, his imagination, some of his inexistent brushstrokes - and probably his avant-guarde spirit too. But I cannot help thinking that the Tate is definitely these days giving us very well known artists and lacks the exploratory flavour that it should have
The first room precisely contains brushstrokes (in particular the excellent Brushstrokes, 1965, Private collection). It is a deep dive into Lichtenstein's philosophy: the representation of brushstrokes with Ben-Day dots and without any brushstrokes. The brushstroke becomes the object and not the means. It is a good idea to have started unchronologically, by this emblematic series. The second room is another deep dive, but into average American life from the 60s. A sort of Desperate Housewives-meet-Madmen, a tone down. At the present time, when the masculinism philosophy has started to spread from the other side of the pond, the woman clichés with a sponge or a spray are quite amusing. So much distance since the 60s. And back...
Look Mickey is also funny, as a piece of art history. Considered by many as the watershed of a middle-aged Roy's career (I believe it is after having seen this painting that Leo Castelli decided to represent him), it is nothing else but a gross re-interpretation of an everyday life cartoon. The result of a challenge by his sons to the then fourty-ish year old Roy. Think Damien Hirst, think Richard Prince. Is it really so different? So why has Lichtenstein's favours with art lovers not crumbled then, like the other two? Maybe because he was the first one (arguably one of) to do this. Try to put a hole or a slash in a monochrom now. You can be no Fontana, yoh!
A French man behind me is trying to explain to an Italian nonna how the museum could write on the walls. So curious. Come on guys, this is not the walls but the paintings you're supposed to comment on. Or maybe better if they don't
The third room is a nice collection of black and white, overscaled objects, grossly represented. And that's precisely the point. The gross representation. Special mention for the Magnifying Glass (1963, Private collection), a dotted canvas with a magnifying glass, where the dots become larger behind the glass. It all looks trivial but one touches here the border between representation and reality, in a Joe Public kind of way
Room 4, Roy goes three-dimensional. And telenovellas. And Captain Flam. Brad and Jeff, Roy's fictional characters, are making war. Or their wives are suffering because of them. I love the Drowning Girl (1963, New York MoMA) saying: "I don't care! I'd rather sink -- than call Brad for help!". Reluctant acquiescence says the curator. Yes, in a Madame Bovary kind of way
Also, I want to ask: who knows of a weapon shouting "Bratatat" (1962, Collection Simonyi) or "Takka Takka" (1962, Cologne's Ludwig Museum) ? Roy's world is real in feeling and unreal in aesthetics. Women are all beautiful. And they all suffer. Men make war. Weapons reach their targets. Colours are simples. Strokes are straight. Points are monochromatic, and at this time of his career, of equal size. Despite the crowd - however less than I expected - a sensation of serendipity is coming from these walls. Am I the only one? Are we all plunged in this ueber-real world?
What is less real is Roy's pieces without characters. But how would you figure the Atlantide - or even a normal seascape - with only dots and black surfaces. And three colours. Room 5. Pass. Only exception is Sea Shore (1964, Private collection), painted on layered sheets of Plexiglass
In room 7 (room 6 can be skipped as well), people are looking at the Rouen cathedral series from close by. Stupid. The series is actually extremely well hung, as it is possible to see it from the far. Well done. The whole room is magnificent. Mondrian by Lichtenstein. Delacroix by Picasso by Lichtenstein (Femme d'Alger, 1963, Broad collection, LA). Purist Painting with Bottles (1975, Wolverhamptonm Art Gallery) uses two nuances of green. Rare enough to be noted. Same greens in the tribute to Matisse, the magnificent Reflections on Interior with Girl Drawing (1990, Broad Collection, LA). Only Van Gogh is missing, in Lichtenstein's old masters' Pantheon
On the backwall, the Triptych (1974, Private collection) shows the transformation of a beautiful menagère de moins de cinquante ans into a cubist collage Am less fond of Laocoon (1988, Private collection) and Washington crossing the Delaware (1951, Roy Lichtenstein Foundation). In the former, the straight lines and plain colours have been replaced by messy curves and white surfaces. And the latter looks like a young Miro, on a dirty background
The Artist's Studio in room 8 sends us back to the Roy we like. A tribute to Matisse (the Dance), a tribute to himself (Look Mickey, a lot cleaner than the original one), these four paintings have been here reunited for the first time since 1974. Well done Mr Tate
Wit stands at its paroxysm with Self-Portrait (1978, Kravis collection): a mirror is placed on top of a bust, supposed to reflect the viewer - except it is a painted mirror. It is Lichtenstein gone Pistoletto. or the other way round? The other examples of mirrors are fun, but it is not Roy's best. No comment on the then contemporary entablatures. Only one here, meno male
The two ante-penultimate rooms are there for the best. The rather unknown Perfect / Imperfect series, the older horny Roy nude paintings (I don't know why but I think about Marc Desgranchamps's horses and Alex Katz' cinema-inspired close-ups). Would not say the same about the last two: early brushtrokes and late Chinese scroll paintings, too bad to end this brilliant exhibition with this. But fortunately, it does not spoil it - go there, and you will get reconciled with pop culture if you ever needed to
Roy Lichtenstein, A retrospective
Tate Modern, London
Until 27 May 2013