Lichtenstein's work famously calls attention to its own status as 'high' art whilst appropriating the trappings of mass-market advertising and consumer culture. Ironically, that culture has now come to claim him back, with bizarre Benday-dotted Lichtenstein figures advertising air conditioners and insurance on the underground - part of the reactionary retro-fever currently sweeping Britain - without any hint of irony or self-awareness.
This exhibition side-steps the usual chronological hang in favour of a first room looking at Lichtenstein's Brushstrokes(1965-6) - works produced after the artist had shrugged off the slightly embarrassing Abstract Impressionist stage and begun building up those layers of irony and meta-textuality for which he is now so recognised. By calling attention to this 'declaration of intent', the curators highlight the importance of play within the artist's work, but also that 'very essence of painting' - the brushstroke. This is art about art (a phrase repeated throughout), but these paintings are also refiguring art's most essential component part as an object - a brushstroke still life.
Indeed, brushstrokes are important here - we're through with Wham!, Crying Girl andall the blondes and battles by the fourth room. The first series of carefully drawn marks is balanced by an intriguing penultimate room balancing Lichtenstein's late Obliterating Brushstrokesseries against his early Abstract Impressionist work. By drawing together the literal brushstrokes and the drawn ones, the exhibition invites us to consider the 'essence' of art - mark-making as constructive and destructive, creating and obliterating, real and depicted (compare the 1962 Sponge, where the depicted sponge wipes the dots away).
"Brushstrokes are important here."
Everyone knows about Lichtenstein's Benday blondes, but few, perhaps, may be as familiar with his sculptural work, and it's interesting to see some of it here. Works such as Teacups and Head with Blue Shadow follow the pattern of his paintings - Benday dots marking out areas of light and shade - but must contend with the real-life light falling on them within the gallery-space. This highlights the shadows' unreality whilst at the same time bringing them - and the paintings they allude to - into the three-dimensional world. Here enters the 'levels of reality' quandary that recurs throughout the exhibition, and for me the key is the fundamental acceptance of the paintings themselves as objects, rather than windows onto mimesis - the Mirrorpaintings later in the exhibition, whose elaborate trompe d'oeil is elaborately futile, bring this home. The additional decision to exhibit many of these sculptures in a formulation that makes it impossible to avoid seeing other Lichtensteins through them adds a further (though perhaps unintended) layer of irony.
Lichtenstein is constantly in dialogue with the artistic equivalent of what literary critics would call 'The Canon' - Matisse's dancing nudes appear and reappear, alongside Cubist works and allusions to Monet within paintings and through direct parody. There is a large room dedicated to his 'art about art' work here, but the clearest example of this for me is not the pastiche Picassos but the essays into the nude.
"Lichtenstein is constantly in dialogue with The Canon"
Lichtenstein's nudes are monumental, flat and badly cropped - in what seems like a deliberate challenge to sacred concepts such as modelling and form, many of them are made up by gradient Benday dots that end up effacing their features and smoothing them into the background, and they are all exactly the same woman, repeated. It is here that the levels of reality we are asked to cut through become most confused: there are Nudes with Paintings of Nudes, Nudes with Mirrors, Nudes with Nude Sculptures and Still Lives with Nudes.
Moreover, some of the nudes (created, we are told, by mentally, and transgressively, stripping the same cartoon women used for his earlier work) refer back to Lichtenstein's own work within their allusions to The Canon - Nudes with Beach Ballis both a fairly clear appropriation of Matisse's Dancing Nudes (La Danse) and an ironically pornified refiguration of Lichtenstein's own 1961 Beach Ball(not included in this exhibition). This brings an additional colour to the interesting painting featuring the Laocoon - part-obliterated by those brushstrokes again, the statue depicted is missing some hands (hands that had been variously attached, detached and reattached throughout the Laocoon's colourful history), making it clearly a painting of a sculpture, rather than a re-depiction of the Laocoon itself. In the process, it becomes another cropped nude itself.
There are some fascinating things in this exhibition, which is all the better for its non-reliance on the Big Hitters - a number of which are usually found in the Tate's (free) permanent collection. The sketches and studies on display are particularly interesting since they demonstrate a drawing skill not normally associated with Lichtenstein, and the black and white pictures of his early Benday explorations are beautiful.
Photograph from eigene Fotografie, 2001, Photographer: Hans Peter Schaefer.