Review: Roy Lichtenstein In Focus (Tate Liverpool)

The American artist Roy Lichtenstein is of course famed as a pioneer of the pop art movement of the 1960s, which shook things up when it fused high art with popular culture. In Lichtenstein’s case this involved paintings which incorporated imagery from comic strips and advertisements, often magnifying the ‘Ben Day’ dots that were commonly used in the printing of comic books and magazines.

This illuminating and thought-provoking exhibition of around 20 Lichtenstein works certainly reflects these aspects of the artist, but it surprises us as well by demonstrating that he also produced paintings inspired by Picasso and the Impressionists, and experimented with sculpture and film.

The best known work on display is the classic In The Car, an archetypal image of Sixties America. A square-jawed, clean-cut man sits alongside a beautiful blonde woman in a fast-moving car. As he drives he casts a sideways glance at her while she stares straight ahead. We’re intrigued by the emotional tension between the characters, but at the same time Lichtenstein emphasizes the unreality of the image by heightening its simple, bold colours and sharp lines, and by rendering it on a huge canvas. The idea that painting stands apart from reality is central to his work, evident in both his technique and his deliberate use of 20th century clichés and stereotypes.

In Wall Explosion II he takes another comic book image but this time turns it into something three-dimensional, an enamel on steel sculpture. The original source was an action strip about the Second World War; it’s surely no coincidence that when Lichtenstein’s work was produced America was engaged in another war, in Vietnam. Like In The Car it freezes a moment in time, and we’re again aware of art’s distance from reality as he transforms a destructive event into a thing of beauty, isolating the explosion from its violent context.

Lichtenstein’s only foray into film, Three Landscapes, is exhibited here for only the second time in Europe. A blend of still and moving images, it uses film shot at Long Island, New York and was created at Hollywood’s Universal studios. Lichtenstein explores the movement of light and water in a work presented on three screens, with an oscillating horizon line evoking the sense of being on a boat.

Elsewhere there are landscapes and abstract paintings, works which pay obvious homage to Picasso, Mondrian, Monet and Van Gogh. Although Lichtenstein became famous in the 1960s, he was born in 1923 and started out as an abstract expressionist. He was a student of art history and in many respects the true subject of his art was art itself.

One of Lichtenstein’s most famous paintings, Whaam! (which depicts a fighter pilot engaged in an aerial battle with another plane), will be coming to the Tate next year as part of the gallery’s celebrations marking the 10th anniversary of Liverpool’s Capital of Culture year. In the meantime we can enjoy this stimulating and thoughtfully curated selection of his work.

**** Wonderfully varied overview of an American master

Roy Lichtenstein In Focus continues at Tate Liverpool until 17 June 2018. Admission is FREE.  

Image credits:

‘Tate’ image (top of page) by Mie

In The Car 1963 by Roy Lichtenstein ©Tate Liverpool, Roger Sinek

Wall Explosion II 1965 by Roy Lichtenstein ©Tate Liverpool, Roger Sinek

Three Landscapes c.1970-1 by Roy Lichtenstein ©Tate Liverpool, Roger Sinek