“Whaam!” (1963), a signature work in Tate’s own collection, makes a strong centrepiece for this powerful retrospective of one of the princes of pop art. Roy Lichtenstein began his career tentatively (an early room here shows him trying to dispatch his debt to his abstract expressionist forebears) and he was 39 before he discovered the themes and tropes that would bring him instant success and controversy: works based on comic strips, brands and merchandising, popular culture and advertising imagery, against the ground of the stencilled Benday dots that never left his armoury.
Through the 1960s and into the 1970s, as this cleverly curated show tells us, Lichtenstein’s range of jokey-serious popular references formed a telling commentary on a visual culture that was driven as much from Madison Avenue as from Hollywood’s graphic workshops. While the works helped to set the agenda of the era, their apparently superficial approach only lightly conceals a persistent quizzing of what art might mean in the age of mass reproduction, and the role of the artist when the upbeat Sixties mood took over from the postwar anguish that drove earlier generations. And the chance to see these easily parodied images up close reveals the extent of their skill and brilliance.
Come the 1980s, however, there’s a sense that Lichtenstein lost his way: this show includes very little from that decade before coming back strongly to the work of the painter’s last years. During the 1990s he tried to take off in new directions, with such series as Brushstrokes, Mirrors, Nudes and a fascination with Chinese landscapes – although the shadow of self-parody is often perilously close. He also explored art history, treating Matisse or Picasso just as he had treated comic books – as elements in a common visual vocabulary.
Until May 27, www.tate.org.uk