Beneath the surface

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In a spacious and well-kept studio space amid the cutely angled streets of New York’s West Village, I am studying a small panel taken from a comic book. The image is instantly familiar, yet at the same time not quite as we know it: a rocket is leaving the wing of a fighter plane, and a garish red sound effect – “WHOOSH!” – attempts to capture the drama of the moment. A bubble on the top left of the panel builds the narrative: “I pressed the fire control ... and ahead of me ... rockets blazed through the sky.”

The panel has been crudely torn from the February 1962 issue of All-American Men of War and roughly annotated in blue ink. But art lovers who have never been near a comic book will recognise the scene: it forms the basis of one of the most famous of all modern art works, Roy Lichtenstein’s “Whaam!”.

I am sitting in Lichtenstein’s former studio, home of the artist’s foundation since his death in 1997, in which thousands of similarly inspirational pieces of pop memorabilia have been scrupulously collected and archived; a place where the once-ephemeral has been turned into art-historical gold.

Of all the periods in Lichtenstein’s stellar career as a pop artist, it is the early 1960s that are by far the best known. Then, Lichtenstein plundered the dynamic images of some of the US’s most popular comic books to produce images – the so-called “War and Romance” series – that would in subsequent years become iconic and insanely valuable.

“Whaam!” was purchased by the Tate Gallery in 1966 for a princely £3,940, not without controversy (trustees Herbert Read and Barbara Hepworth were among those who opposed its acquisition), but with instantly favourable results: the painting was a highlight of the gallery’s 1968 show on the artist, and galvanised young people to come through its august doors.

Only Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans” had a comparable effect on a new generation that fell in love with the playful, superficial ways of pop art. Lichtenstein’s taut-faced pilots and gloopy adolescent girls were instantly recognisable figures from comics, movies and pop songs, and now they were making their way into the most prestigious temples of high culture.

But that period of ferocious creativity (and instantaneous commercial success) constituted only a small part, some five years, of Lichtenstein’s career. A new retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern opening next month, the first since the artist’s death in 1997, aims to complete the picture. It will show, among its 125 works, some of the artist’s late pieces, such as his Chinese landscapes and nudes, which remain relatively obscure to the public.

The show has been curated by Sheena Wagstaff, who left Tate last year to head the department of modern and contemporary art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. She wants visitors to come away with a broader appreciation of Lichtenstein’s talents, looking beyond those familiar works.

‘I Can See the Whole Room and There’s Nobody in It!’ (1961)

“He was a consummate painter,” she tells me over tea in a private members’ room at the Met. “If you think of someone like [Henri] Matisse, who was trying to bring form and image together through colour and line – that is exactly what Roy Lichtenstein was trying to do.”

It was the formal challenges in re-creating the images that had saturated the billboards and airwaves of the Mad Men era that interested Lichtenstein, much more than the subjects themselves. He painted by hand to make his works look machine-made; he copied comic-book images, but tweaked the contours of the originals to improve the composition. (The comparisons can be seen on the fascinating “Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein” web page.) “He was completely different from Warhol,” says Wagstaff firmly. “Warhol was not a painter, Lichtenstein was.”

The man who traded in “Whaams!” and “Whooshes!” was far from bombastic in manner, she says. “He was wry, with a great sense of humour, and a lovely giggle. Cool but not sophisticated. He was rather reticent, which was one of the delightful things about him.”

The description tallies with the atmosphere in Lichtenstein’s former studio, which is methodically laid out (rows of paint tubes are arranged in exactly the same way as in his other studio in Southampton, New York) and lacks any whiff of creative chaos. He was rigorous and scientific in his approach to painting, even inventing his own easel, which was capable of turning a canvas around 360 degrees.

Roy Lichtenstein in front of his painting ‘Whaam!’ (1963) at London’s Tate gallery in 1968

“He wanted to know what a painting would look like upside down,” says Harry Cooper, head of modern and contemporary art at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, which has just housed the exhibition. “He was interested in shapes in themselves, and wanted us to take another look at this visual culture all around us.”

This almost abstract approach to his subjects would become more explicit in Lichtenstein’s late landscapes, which would mix his familiar dot matrices with near-satirical simulations of abstract expressionist brushstrokes. (Lichtenstein’s humour was never far from the surface of his surface-obsessed work: the dialogue bubble coming from the cool blonde in an early “War and Romance” work was cheerfully self-referential, and prescient: “Why, Brad Darling, This Painting is a Masterpiece! My, Soon You’ll Have All of New York Clamoring For Your Work!”.)

Following the success of the “War and Romance” series, Lichtenstein moved abruptly in different directions: in the “art history” paintings, he implicitly compared himself to the greats by reproducing some of their most familiar works in his own, ever more refined style. “He wanted to be understood within the history of painting,” says Tate curator Iria Candela. “He was equating his work with that of other artists, saying, ‘I am part of this tradition.’”

In his sculptures of the late 1960s, he was inspired by the art-deco shapes that were familiar to him from his childhood in Manhattan. “He said he didn’t like [the style] very much, but that it was in his blood,” says Cooper.

Ceramic Sculpture 7 (1965)

Modern-day Manhattan repays the homage in hosting two notable public works that can be freely seen by passers-by today. The Times Square mural of the mid-1990s, which adorns a frenetically busy subway intersection, is all but lost amid the visual clutter of ATM machines and movie billboards. It manages to be futuristic and nostalgic all at once and stands proud and still-pristine beside its rusting, stained surroundings. The much grander mural of the AXA Equitable Center is a dizzy montage of more art historical references, in truth too fussy to make any kind of authoritative statement.

More eloquent are the paintings commissioned in 1993 for the boardroom of MacAndrews & Forbes, the holding company owned by billionaire businessman Ronald Perelman. Lichtenstein fills the panels with visual in-jokes that refer to his patron – a big cheese, a cigar, a man behind a curtain – that give the space a light-hearted and insubstantial feel. Further irony: some of the heftiest business deals of the last couple of decades have been debated here.

There is in fact a perfect synergy between Lichtenstein, the man who thought so deeply about lack of depth, and the frantic, hyper-moneyed art world of today. Lichtenstein’s works, along with those of Warhol, have the ultimate “wall power”, that shimmering, almost trivial quality that makes them immediately desirable and unthreateningly cool.

Lichtenstein was a serious, but not a tortured, artist. He cared most about his position in the art historical canon, but was not uninterested in his position in the marketplace. Charged with vacuity, he routinely turned the tables on his audience. In one of his most famous works from 1961, another from the comic book series, a man looks through a peep hole from a black background, straight at the viewer.

“I Can See the Whole Room! ... And There’s Nobody In It!” says the speech bubble. It could be the perfect self-inflicted joke on his perceived lack of artistic substance, or just a casual pop at the viewer. Fact remains, it sold for $43.2m at Christie’s in New York just over a year ago, a then-record for the artist at auction.

Whoosh! Everyone wants a piece of the action now.

‘Lichtenstein: A Retrospective’ opens at Tate Modern, London, on February 21;

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