Review: Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, Tate Modern, London

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With an artist quite so well known as Roy Lichtenstein (can anyone not be aware of his imagery?), it is always tempting for a gallery to try and freshen him up with a novel interpretation. Mercifully Tate Modern, which has been particularly guilty in the past, has decided this time to play it straight.

You might think that stretched through 13 rooms, Lichtenstein’s particular brand of monumentalised Pop Art might pall. Not a bit of it. Even in the large room devoted to his most famous comic cuts of love and war, you find yourself wholly caught up in what he called “the pregnant moment” when a single image and an accompanying speech bubble tells it all. Profound or simply effective, Lichtenstein knew how to make a canvas leap out at you.

Did he do more as he moved from comics to pastiches of the modern masters, ironic nudes and geometric compositions in the 1980s and 1990s before his death at 74 in 1997? The exhibition gives you plenty of examples to work on and good, light spaces in which to see them. But the questions remain.

Lichtenstein had started out as an abstract expressionist, and the gallery includes some examples of his early efforts at painterly power alongside his later return to using the brushstroke. You can see his problem when he creates his pastiches of Matisse, Picasso and others and even more in his final works when he pays homage to the landscapes of the Song dynasty Chinese painters. He understands mood, he knows how to refresh and modernise traditional compositions but he has no feel of the brushstroke of the Asian artists or the juxtaposition of colour in the modernists.

Did he sense his limitations? It’s hard not to believe so given the number of works he did around the themes of past art and its forms.

But in the end the brush as such always seemed to have eluded him. What he was best at was what first inspired him in the world of comics and newspaper advertisements: the power of imagery in simplified form, block colours and half tone dots. He was as strong in three dimensions as two and the show includes a number of examples of his sculptures in ceramic and brass which hint at what he might have done if he had experimented more in materials instead of concentrating on paint.

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective Tate Modern Until 27 May

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