Why Roy Lichtenstein Still Matters

by Francesca Peak. Originally published on Mouth London

LichtensteinNext month will see Lichtenstein: A Retrospective take over the Tate Modern for a three-month stint showcasing 125 of Lichtenstein’s pieces, both his instantly recognisable paintings and lesser-known sculptures. A friend on Twitter responded to this news by asking ‘Why does Lichtenstein get a whole exhibit for ‘art’ I could do in my sleep? #wasteofspace’ Reader, I unfollowed them – here’s why.

This decade has seen and will see the 50th anniversaries of several momentous occasions in history, many of them American. The assassinations of John. F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King; end of the Vietnam war; Civil Rights Act; the first man on the moon; the publication of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique – you could say the United States had more than its fair share of history in the 1960s. Woven into the cultural fabric that made up this fascinating decade was Pop Art, a movement that defined the era and lives on today as an emblem of boldness and the epitome of cool.

Lichtenstein, along with Andy Warhol, defined the movement and ensured that his name remained in the public consciousness long after his last work was produced. Lichtenstein’s pieces range from images of everyday essentially American objects, such as sneakers and hot dogs, to almost surreal comic reels, contrasting with Warhol whose fascination with Hollywood led to infamous images of Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando. All the while, Lichtenstein employs the hand-painted dot technique which, together with bold colours and thick black lines, defines his work. Whilst perhaps less famous than his paintings, Lichtenstein’s sculptures are masterful examples of comic strips coming to life and merging with the real world.

Yet the question remains – why is Lichtenstein and his work relevant, over fifty years after his first one-man show? For one, Lichtenstein’s work brings women to the forefront of everyday situations and forces women in our faces; whether they’re drowning, crying or smiling, women are everywhere in his work, alongside the couches, golf balls and sponges. By ostentatiously putting women first, Lichtenstein identified, whether consciously or not, with the Freidan-headed debate over the role of women in society – a debate which is still, to some extent, raging today.

Lichtenstein’s work, from the mundane to the extraterrestrial, allows us to escape to a world where blonde hair is canary yellow, the sunset clouds are luminous purple and you can see the ‘RATATATAT’ of a machine gun above the gun itself. By translating comic strips and Disney images to an adult sphere, Lichtenstein created an alternate reality that was certainly a product of the tumultuous 1960s in America, however remains relevant, absorbing and unique.

The Tate Modern’s website claims that the retrospective will ‘reassess his enduring legacy,’ and thus here is my (re)assessment; although initially denounced by some and still divisive in artistry and level of skill, Lichtenstein’s work is bold, beautiful and humorous, with the artist making fun at the art world, his audience and himself. Surely in this gloomy double-dip recession and amidst a murky winter, an artist with a bold palette, sense of humour and fifty-year longevity is something worth celebrating.

‘Lichtenstein: A Retrospective’ is on at the Tate Modern from 21st February until 27th May. Tickets are available here.

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