Tate Modern, London

Charles Darwent on the Tate's Lichtenstein retrospective: Oh boy, Roy, that's a really dotty picture. There must be a catch ...

4.00

When fine art meets the comic book, the result is as subversive as the original cartoon characters

A few years ago, I saw a Mondrian show in Pittsburgh. A career in one room, it began with a farmyard scene in the Dutch genre style Mondrian favoured in 1900 and ended, 20 years later, with a colour-rectangle Composition. In between, things changed incrementally – Mondrian finding Cézanne, then Cubism; his eye becoming more linear, grid-like; his abstraction less a rejection of nature than a refining of it. The show's history may have been on the tidy side, but it was compelling for all that.

In 1964, Roy Lichtenstein painted a Mondrian, Non-Objective I. I say "a Mondrian" because that is what it is – not a specific picture but a generic one, a Mondrian-a-like. It is not one of Lichtenstein's better-known works, although it is one of his more revealing. Halfway through Tate Modern's new retrospective, in a room labelled Art About Art, Non-Objective I considers how Mondrian made it from farmyards to rectangles.

All painting is about inventing a system, a code of marks or forms to say what you want to say. Ingres used a fine brush, close-worked; Seurat, short, stabbed points of coalescing colour; Mondrian, rectangles of red, yellow and blue. His system seems to go about as far systems can, although any brushload of paint applied to a canvas is exactly as abstract as any other, whether the end result is a colour grid or A Sunday Afternoon on the Grande Jatte. Art is, and always has been, about lying.

In Non-Objective I, Lichtenstein tips us off to this. Most of the image is straightforward Mondrian, except for the areas we read as grey. These are rendered not in solid paint but in Ben-Day dots, those printers' ink blobs Lichtenstein made his own. It turns out Mondrian hadn't taken abstraction as far as it could go, because Lichtenstein takes it further: he abstracts the Dutchman's rectangles into discs of colour. Except that, confusingly, Non-Objective I isn't abstract. It is the slavishly representational re-creation of a work by Piet Mondrian.

Confused? That is the point. In the room before, a picture, Tire, shows what we Brits call a tyre. But, of course, it doesn't. Lichtenstein has painted a system of black zigzag lines which we read as a tread, areas of black and white we agree is a hubcap. As with Warhol's starlets and soup tins, tyres are not the stuff of High Art: we are in the land of Pop. And yet Lichtenstein's work has a moral intent that is anything but popular.

Scholars of art history spend years dissecting the brushwork of Ingres, but the man in the street – the man at whom Ben-Day dots are aimed – takes it as read that a given arrangement of spots and zigzags is a tyre or a duck or a mouse. Objects of mass production need mass deception and collusion. Only when the deceit is shown out of context – on a gallery wall rather than in an auto magazine – do we see the trick.

The image of Roy Lichtenstein as a lyricist of Middle America – a poet of comic books, car parts, True Romance – could hardly be more wrong. There had been no single Whaam! moment in Mondrian's career, but there was in Lichtenstein's. In Ohio in the 1940s, he was influenced, like pretty well everybody, by Picasso; back in New York in the Fifties, he turned, like many artists, to Abstract Expressionism. But when, in 1961, his young son challenged him to paint a page from a comic, something in Lichtenstein clicked.

Pop was in the air – Richard Hamilton had kicked it off in Britain, Warhol was painting images from Nancy comics nearby. Lichtenstein's Look Mickey has a different feel from these, though, a paternal tenderness. Just as Mickey can see the truth about Donald's catch – can titter at the double entendre of what the guileless duck is saying – so Lichtenstein understands his own role as an artist. Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought painting wicked because it tricked the eye. Lichtenstein feels rather the same way.

Above all, he is a history painter, a man of his time. The Ben-Day dot was merely the newest, the most dangerous system of visual deception, worse than Monet's brush-marks only because more efficient – Lichtenstein points that out in his re-making of Monet's Rouen Cathedral series. But the innocent printer's dot is not just an abstract form. It is also the tool of a capitalist structure, a mass means of gulling the masses.

The Tate's own Whaam! may be lifted from a comic, but it was painted in 1963, as America became embroiled in Vietnam. It is a history painting, the portrait of a time when war had been made the stuff of bread and circuses, a plaything for children including Lichtenstein's own. That realisation, maybe, is what makes him a great painter. His art is often funny, intentionally glib; but it is, at heart, tinged with despair.

To 27 May (020-7887 8888)

Critic's Choice

Glam! is waiting to take you back to the Seventies with art, music, photography and plenty of spangly ephemera. Style, sexuality and nostalgia combine in this wide-ranging show at Tate Liverpool (till 12 May). There are more exclamation marks at photographer Juergen Teller’s show Woo!, at the ICA in London. The work showcased features wellknown fashion faces, actors and rock stars, from Lily Cole to Kurt Cobain (till 17 Mar).

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'