Lichtenstein is generally thought of as the co-inventor of American pop art, with Andy Warhol. And that’s a big deal. The story of how he first came to turn comics into art is well known. But it bears repeating here because a weighty overview of his career has now arrived in town, and on weighty overview occasions the big picture needs to be redrawn and reunderstood. So I’m sorry if you’ve heard the tale of his comic origins, as it were, before.
Prior to 1961, Lichtenstein was an abstract expressionist, smudging his canvases with billowing and emotional abstract paintwork. He did this until he was 37. Then, one day, his son was asked at school what his dad did for a living. He’s an abstract expressionist, replied the boy. The other kids laughed. That means he can’t draw, they mocked. Lichtenstein’s tearful son returned home and told his dad, who decided to prove them wrong by producing a perfect Mickey Mouse copy. The other kids were impressed. So, more surprisingly, was Lichtenstein himself. He liked the Mickey Mouse. He did more.
Is this often-told tale too neat to be entirely true? Probably. It was Lichtenstein himself who spread the yarn around. Rather like one of his own paintings, it has a catchy neighbourhood drollness to it. He’s the or’nary dad who stooped to conquer. In the Hayward Gallery’s overview, however, you can see Lichtenstein cunningly inserting Mickeys, Donalds and Bugs Bunnies into abstract expressionist drawings from 1958. So the taste for them was there three years before it officially should have been.
What is undeniable is what happened next. The first New York showing of Lichtenstein’s comic-book paintings, unveiled in 1962, was a sensation: one of those once-in-a-generation openings that everyone talks about and that alters the aesthetics of its times. Even from this chronological distance, you can sense the frisson that the appearance of these shrill comic-book extractions must have generated in the more dignified corners of the Manhattan art world. When everyone around you is an abstract expressionist, elbowing them out of the way and putting Mickey Mouse on a pedestal is a helluva heresy.
The opening room at the Hayward Gallery’s look at Lichtenstein is devoted to this first exciting wave of rebellion. It’s a great room to walk into. Bright. Snappy. Irreverent. You are greeted by a big yellow-and-blue painting of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse fishing. “Look Mickey, I’ve hooked a big one!!”, yells Donald, who has accidentally hooked his own butt. On the next wall, Popeye is landing a haymaker on Bluto’s chin, a can of discarded spinach at his feet. I had to smile. An art form that could trace its origins back 30,000 years, to the caves of Chauvet and beyond, an aesthetic line that had produced Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo was now immortalising, if that is the correct word, the punching power of Popeye.
No other culture could ever have done this, or would ever have needed to. When you turn Mickey and Popeye into art, you validate an entire national mood, a century’s worth of societal aesthetic contribution. In these first Lichtenstein comic paintings, American textures and American thinking can be seen impinging on global culture like a grinning sledgehammer. The little guy (uppity new America) is socking the big guy (the ancient rest of the world). And we all know what happened next. The little guy turned into the biggest guy ever, and these days he rules his domain with a mighty global fist.
Lichtenstein’s Donald-and-Mickey phase only lasts a couple of pictures. What’s interesting about it is that the paintings themselves are so uncomplicated. Nothing profound about the nature of reality is being investigated; no charged moment of interpersonal anxiety is being examined. It’s just catchy comic imagery done big, an open-hearted celebration, you feel, of dumb American values. You like them for their cheekiness, their zinginess, their visual punchiness. By painting comics, Lichtenstein is doing what Chardin did when he chose to paint onions. He is ennobling the humble. However, the rest of the show is spent back-pedalling furiously from this excellently innocent position. And Lichtenstein spends nine-tenths of the display seeking desperately to prove he is more, so much more, than a painter of comics.
We have to remember that he had just been an abstract expressionist. Sure, you can teach an abstract expressionist to paint Popeye. But you can never cure them of the inchoate appetite for profundity that turned them into an abstract expressionist to begin with. By the show’s third picture, Lichtenstein is questioning the meaning of a steaming cup of coffee whose vapours have been evoked with a daisy chain of entwined lines. It’s a pretty painting. Lichtenstein’s real interest, though, isn’t the all-American coffee or its quotidian symbolism, but the unlocking of the visual code used by the original artist to evoke the coffee’s hotness.
Lichtenstein the code-breaker has made his first appearance.
Most notoriously, of course, this interest in graphic shorthands leads him to adopt the printer’s half-tone dot as his signature effect. Oh Brad, so many dots, for so little reason! The show is dizzy with them. The first ones are hand-painted, in careful imitation of the printer’s effect. Later on, Lichtenstein uses stencils to do them. By the end, they are reproduced by assistants, just as mechanically as the original dots that inspired them, and have grown terribly boring. An investigation has become a habit.
The initial impact of Lichtenstein’s higher ambition is fruitful. Having dispensed with Mickey and Popeye, he turns interestingly to the anonymous world of teen romances for his next batch of sources. It’s the best bit of the show. A nervous woman waits for the phone to ring. A couple in a car exchange suspicious glances. Tears flow down an anonymous cheek. Everyday American love moments are being jacked up to an Ibsenesque pitch of anxiety by the simple tactic of plucking them out of a comic, enlarging them and re-presenting them on their own, shorn of context.
Further along the display, a cabinet of drawings and cuttings reveals what Lichtenstein’s sources actually were and how he used them. A humble war story called Star Jockey is revealed as the source for the Tate Gallery’s magnificent Whaam!, that thunderously emblematic image of an American fighter plane swooping down to blast the enemy out of the skies. The original image was tiny. To make his famous giant war picture out of it, Lichtenstein redesigned the original from top to bottom and did to it what governments do to war dossiers. Sexed it up. Fictionalised it. Made it flashier. Bigger. Catchier.