Not such a comic strip

    Pervy: Roy Lichtenstein’s Nudes with Beach Ball (1994) and, left, Galatea (1990)

    Tate Modern’s Lichtenstein show joins the dots on a patchy career. It’s all downhill after the first brilliant cartoon takes

    The exhibition trail seems currently to be celebrating some sort of “transformation­ fortnight”. It’s not a date noted in any of the calendars, but if you line up the biggest shows that have arrived in ­London recently, you will see that all of them have issues of transformation at their heart. At the Barbican, Marcel Duchamp pulls off the most notorious transformation in modern culture when he turns a urinal into art. At Tate Britain, the long-winded Dadaist Kurt Schwitters makes art out of old bus tickets. And who should now arrive at Tate Modern to show off his transformational skills but the daddy of transformative pop art, Roy Lichtenstein, who made such a prominent and successful career for himself turning comics into paintings?

    Lichtenstein is especially appreciated in Britain because his masterpiece of comic-enlargement, Whaam!, in which an American jet fighter blows up an enemy plane with a ­joyous splat, is one of Tate Modern’s ­signature works. Every­body knows it. The Tate does not ­possess many proper masterpieces of modern art — it’s one of the deeper truths disguised by the surface busyness of Bankside — but Whaam! is among the few it does own. Painted in 1963, when the Vietnam War was escalating, this noisy flash of pop conflict had real death, real battle, as its context. And ignored them both roundly.

    I would argue, however, that this unreality helped bring the reality into focus. It’s like watching an episode of Top Gear straight after a multiple pile-up on the M1 has left two families without a father and mother. What makes Whaam! a par­ticularly wicked and effective painting, and what makes Lichtenstein a particularly successful artist at this stage of his career, is the insouciance ­smuggled into the accusation. Yes, he’s having a pop at the hawks and the GI beefcakes for their boy’s-toys attitude to war, but he’s also enjoying hugely the glamorous precision of comic-book warfare: the big bangs, the dynamic outlines, the snappy speech bubbles. It isn’t just the comic book that is being ennobled here. It is, somehow, America itself.

    Whaam! is on show in a room divided between war and love. A typical picture in the latter category will feature a cute comic-book Alice fretting over a handsome comic-book Brad. Will he call? Has she said something wrong? These “pregnant moments” were supposed to echo through the viewer’s ­imagination and suggest a bigger story. Lichtenstein seemed to realise earlier than most that adolescence was about to become a permanent state, that we baby-boomers would soon be spending our entire lives not growing up. Thus Alice’s teenage angst, enlarged and ennobled, becomes universal and timeless, while Brad’s lantern-jawed heroism is doomed to feel eternally hopeless.

    All this is marvellous. But, unfortunately, it isn’t what the show is about. Instead, the Tate begins its retrospective by insisting that we take careful notice of Lichtenstein’s recurrent interest in the artist’s mark. The first room is duly devoted to a set of close-ups, painted in 1965, of some giant brush strokes. They form no image. We see only the brush strokes themselves, ­presented in a cartoon style that mimics the look of cheap ­printing. Lichtenstein was already 42 when he painted these standalone brush strokes. So what happened to the rest of his career? This is supposed to be a retrospective, yet its first act is to ignore his first two decades. In fact, we only find out at the far end of the display, in a section that feels tacked on, that he spent the 1950s as an abstract expressionist. Rather a good one, as it turns out: passionate and loose. But his abstract expressionism seems too messy to fit the image plan the Tate has come up with for him.

    Having planted the idea that we need to focus on his mark-making, the show strides briskly and excitingly through the Whaam! years. The first of his comic-book images, Look Mickey, from 1961, is an amusing fishing scene in which an excited Donald Duck shouts to a naughty Mickey Mouse that he has hooked “a big one!!”. Mickey clasps a paw across his snout and suppresses a giggle.

    The scene was lifted directly from a Disney comic, and ­whoever did the original design did a great job of packing fun, colour and movement into a striking Van Goghian arrangement of yellow and blue. By ­taking the image out of its ­Disney context and enlarging it, Lichtenstein is doing various smartass things: promoting a specifically American creativity; challenging the received order of the arts; bringing our attention to the inventive mark-­making of the Disney artists.

    Once he had copied his first cartoon, there was no stopping him. War comics. Teenage romances. Domestic advertising. He plunders them all. A particularly charming suite of early pictures plunges us into the world of the 1960s American housewife and the products she dreams of: a spray for polishing the furniture; a sponge for cleaning the walls; a big, sparkling engagement ring to top off her domestic bliss. All have been enlarged and reframed in bold, cartoonish close-ups.

    None of this pioneering pop art seems to be issuing any warnings about commerce or expressing doubts about the consumer dream. Rather, it takes it all at face value and cheerfully promotes it as a sexy new American truth. It is left to time itself, with its ­fading of Lichtenstein’s colours and its gentle mocking of his innocence, to endow this delightful comic-book imagery with its poignancy.

    All this takes place in the first rooms of the show: its best rooms. Unfortunately, there are a dozen more to go, and the ­further we stride from the early comic-book art, the more ponderous the journey becomes. Having insisted that it is Lichtenstein’s investigation of the artist’s touch that is important here, the show sets about proving it by dividing his output into thematic clusters. A room devoted to his landscapes — open seas and empty horizons, re-created mechanically in mechanical dots — is as joyless a reaction to nature as you will ever suffer. A few galleries later, he devotes a wallful of pictures to proving that the painted reflections in mirrors are not real reflections, and that they cannot be summarised by the printed mark. It’s like listening to the mutterings of an old boy solving a crossword puzzle.

    The worst room is probably the one featuring Lichtenstein’s laborious tussles with other ­artists. Taking on Picasso, Monet and Matisse in a pop-art shoot-out can never have been a good idea, but it is made to seem like a truly bad one — a real stinker — when the originals are so obviously superior to these clunky reworkings. A ­paraphrase of one of Picasso’s sensuous nudes on a beach involves the placing of a large comic eye in the middle of her fore­head. Monet’s views of Rouen Cath­edral, in which the great impressionist sought to capture specific light effects at different times of day, have been turned into a set of colour corrections as subtle as a printer test.

    By now, his surfaces have grown as slick and flat as ­Formica. The entire show, we now see, has been pointed in this particular direction to mask the seriousness of Lichtenstein’s decline. In a final twist, he even has a go at paraphrasing himself, with a set of pervy nudes based on his own imagery of the 1960s. This time, Alice has been stripped of her clothes and forced to behave as if nothing has changed as she bounds about, naked, across hugely enlarged canvases.

    As the paintings grow bigger and more expensive, so they grow duller and less graceful. A display that sets out to insist that Lichtenstein should be understood as the Confucius of the brush stroke ends up proving that the only time his art achieved real pictorial excitement was when someone else — the comic-book artists he sought to outrank — came up with the images. It’s ironic and even a touch sad.