3 March, 2013Issue 21.4HistoryNorth AmericaThe ArtsVisual Arts

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Pop Goes History

Kevin Brazil

BritishLichtenstein: A Retrospective
Tate Modern
London
 21 February—27 May 2013

Kurt Schwitters in Britain
Tate Britain
London 
28 January—12 May 2013

“Look Mickey, I’ve hooked a big one!”: Donald Duck says more than he knows about the Roy Lichtenstein retrospective currently on show at the Tate Modern. The retrospective is the largest in twenty years, having hooked the Art Institute of Chicago and over a hundred works in order to assess Lichtenstein’s legacy. Any retrospective poses the question of legacy but it rightly feels more pressing for artists of the Pop generation. The worry of being hooked is Pop Art’s bad conscience, expressed in the frequent insistence on its critical rather than celebratory attitude towards its source material. Roy Lichtenstein doesn’t really think a comic book is as good as a Monet, you see; he is really pointing out the gender stereotypes in the world of mass culture imagery etc. ad nauseam. This in itself is a problem of a depressingly narrow range of perspectives, the fault of critics rather than artists and audiences, but it isn’t the problem with this retrospective Lichtenstein, who has enough problems on his own.

Not that the curators give him much help. In this ostensibly chronological survey, the first room is more than a bit deceptive. Opening with two of Lichtenstein’s Brushstroke paintings, where the gestural brush strokes of painterly expression are reduced to mechanically-reproduced graphic reproductions, the implication that Lichtenstein began in reaction to the Abstract Expressionists is pushed too hard. These works are from the mid-sixties, long after that moment had exhausted itself and long after Lichtenstein had ditched his own dabblings at being another de Kooning. This happened in 1961, with the painting of “Look Mickey”. But this wasn’t a simple revelation of the visual richness of the world of comic books. The image was culled from a children’s book belonging to one of Lichtenstein’s sons and was repainted by Lichtenstein to give it a more “authentic” look. The uneasy questions surrounding Lichtenstein’s relation to his source images, which were not the work of anonymous hacks but the visual creations of other comic-book artists, are too much to go in to here, but they are brilliantly explored in David Barsalous’ online project:

Suffice to say that from the beginning, with a children’s image projected back into its dime-store past, Lichtenstein’s copies were about nostalgia, above all the nostalgia of a delicately balanced historical moment.

And nostalgia can be a powerful force, as the arresting collective display of Lichtenstein’s most famous comic book paintings show. Pictures over-familiar from reproductions on everything from coffee mugs to screen-savers are here in their original, primary-coloured glory. Pictures known by the curious poetry of their text: “Whaam!.”; “I Don’t Care, I’d Rather Sink Than Call Brad For Help”; “Oh Jeff, I Love You Too, But…” only seeing them all together as pictures can you grasp the moment of their precarious nostalgia. The blond of “M-Maybe” is a Golden Age Hollywood blond, who would symbolically die with Marylin Monroe in 1962. Wry treatments of war such as the planes in ‘Whaam!’ couldn’t last long after Lyndon B. Johnson’s escalation of the conflict in Vietnam. From 1964, comic books would no longer be content with being innocent mass culture to Lichtenstein’s high art: in that year, the term ‘graphic novel’ was coined by Richard Kyle. Even the famous Ben-Day dots which Lichtenstein made his signature, in use in various ways since the late nineteenth century, would soon be replaced by cheaper photomechanical printing. The imitation of this printing process is meant to transform the works into what Hal Foster calls “a handmade readymade”, is meant to make us think about the relationship between originality and reproduction, between high and low art. In this exhibition however, it emerges as a technique of an innocent America soon passing into history, and the rest of Lichtenstein’s work at the Tate Modern shows how this elusive fusion between the found and the painted image soon descended into mannerism after that undeniably powerful moment at the beginning of the sixties.

The rest of the retrospective shows that these Ben-Day dots, far from signifying a bridge between the worlds of high gallery and mass-produced images instead were, for Lichtenstein, hall-marks of an individual, signature style. As Lichtenstein’s work unfolds over the seventies and eighties, the same approach is taken to landscapes, seascapes, interiors, to black-and-white-only pieces, to parodies of works by Monet, Picasso, and Mondrian with numbing predictability. This is openly acknowledged, though with a somewhat different intention, when “Look Mickey” appears in the 1973 Artist’s Studio “Look Mickey” in a self-referential joke. What to make of this career’s long fixation on a signature style? The cynic would note its conjuncture with Lichtenstein’s signing to the Leo Castelli gallery, the salesroom of the dealer who created the New York art market that would make Lichtenstein and many other artists of the sixties so rich. But more honestly, it shows that Lichtenstein’s interest in Pop imagery had little to do with a concern for the technologies of mass reproduction. In this, he could not be further from the originator of Pop, Richard Hamilton, whose masterful and poignant last works, recently shown at the National Gallery, saw him working into painting the visual qualities of Photoshop, GCI, Ink-jet, grappling with the meaning of visual media until the very end. Hamilton’s work pulls into perspective how narrow, even shallow, was Lichtenstein’s understanding of what Pop Art was, or could be. For Lichtenstein, Pop Art was just a strikingly colourful, bold style of a certain moment in the history of mass visual culture, one which could be easily appropriated, made into a unique signature and marketed. This is what makes visual nostalgia such a problem, negating and effacing the original constellation that gave this style its meaning. And it is the sense that Lichtenstein didn’t want to know, or simply didn’t care, about what is forgotten in this visual nostalgia that diminishes his work into something that is, at best, painting’s equivalent of John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, forever paralysed by the promises of 1960.

A revealing comparison is made up the river at Tate Britain, with its exploration of Kurt Schwitters in Britain. History forbade nostalgia as an option for Schwitters, and the exhibition skilfully manages to present a biographically-driven exhibition which refuses to let either history or a narrative of a life drown out Schwitter’s vast range of work. In spite of the crucial influence of Schwitters on Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton, it would be far too reductive to label Schwitters’s work as Pop. His own approach, born in the debris left by German Dada, was the philosophy of “Merz”, outlined by Schwitters in 1919: “The word Merz denotes essentially the combination, for artistic purposes, of all conceivable materials, and, technically, the principle of the equal distribution of the individual materials […]. A perambulator wheel, wire-netting, string and cotton wool are factors having equal rights with paint.” Merz took Schwitters from Hanover, where he built the destroyed Merzbau, to Norway, where he fled after being declared “degenerate” by the Nazis, to the Hutchinson internment camp on the Isle of Wight during the war, all the way to the Lake District, where Schwitters left the uncompleted Merz barn upon his death in 1948.

The collages produced by this Merz painting are the main focus of this exhibition and they work to provide palimpsests of the visual world through which Schwitters travelled: a Berlin tram ticket; a selection of Quality Street wrappers; off-cuts of lino. By shifting the selection of material to whatever was provided by the context, Schwitters introduced his own element of automatism and chance into the process of creation. This element manages to show the trace of history as history as it moved him around first Germany and then Britain, but the calculation latent in the organisation of Schwitters’ collages, which is easy to miss, is crucial to their meaning. This is at its most pointed when, after the war, Schwitters encounters the world of American imagery which for Lichtenstein was to prove so nostalgic. “Untitled” or “The Wounded Soldier” (1941-42) features American GIs, culled from the pages of Life, enjoying some beers in their “service clubs”. This and other scraps are layered on top of a nineteenth-century lithograph reproduction of a stock German Biedermeyer scene. Not only do we grasp in this simple juxtaposition the specific historical failure of the German middle-class in the face of Nazism, we also get a potted history of the shifting technologies of visual mechanical reproduction.

And it is this historical perspective on the imagery of “Pop” that Schwitters provides, prophetically, in his post-war collage “EN MORN” (1947) with its ambiguous “These are the things we are fighting for”. Lichtenstein’s blond American beauty is here put in her place as the Cassandra of the post-war reconstruction, of the permanent transformation of Europe’s popular visual imaginary. Even the Ben-Day dots appear, cost-effectively advertising the latest, hygienic, breath-freshening Peppermint. This one little collage does more to expand the meanings to be gleaned from the ambiguity of Pop than a whole room of drowning girls. Maybe the fight was not between Marylin and Monet; perhaps instead it was a fight for the right to have both. That might be the history of “Pop” that still needs to be written.

Kevin Brazil is reading for a DPhil in English literature at New College, Oxford.

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