notes on the roy lichtenstein retrospective at tate modern:
lichtenstein's art exists in relation to abstract expressionism and should be seen with it. they should have hung a rothko or newman in the first couple of rooms, their brushstrokes against his. abstract expressionism was about handcraft, authenticity of feeling, the artist as existential hero before the cosmos. lichtenstein's work substitutes pseudo-mechanical reproduction, fake emotion, second-hand mass produced sources. in the early 60s it violated the norms of high art in the way that, say, tracy emin's bed violated the norms, in terms of subject matter [trashy] and technique [apparent lack of]. the early pop works, taken from newspaper small ads, are bracingly cheap and vulgar.
the exhibition shows that the iconic mid-60s comic strip paintings are far above the rest of his work. there is the immediacy that makes people smile, but the compositions are usually perfect both visually and emotionally. considering that they are meant to imitate printing techniques it's odd that the colours of the benday dots are never CMYK. or at least the C and M are replaced by primary red and blue.
from the late 60s it's mostly downhill as lichtenstein gets academic and art-historical. his subject matter is cheap commercial america. when he tries to be respectable and painterly it fails. gentility is deadly to his art. the comics gave him a subject matter that he could edit and simplify to a fine point of impact. the later works suffer from being worked up to cluttered complexity which obscures rather than communicates. postmodernism and self-reference led him down blind alleys. ironically the best later works are the calculatedly crap perfect/imperfect paintings, "the nameless or generic painting you might find in the background of a sitcom"… precisely, roy. that's your territory.
in pop terms, he's the musician who went on too long, gained too much technique and no new ideas, wanted to be considered serious, thought he was ready to compose symphonies. but the discovery of 60s pop art, as for 60s pop music, is that low art can be great art when its simplicity and focus come good. the equivalent of whaam! and the comic strip girls is spector's girl groups and wall of sound, where production line music nailed universal emotions for all time - will you still love me tomorrow? the lyrics sound like lichtenstein paintings.
of course, it's a disturbing thought, as a creator, that you only have so much in you. it's no good for a career.