Pop Art's One-Hit Wonder Gets Another Look

Article excerpt

Unsung pioneer of one of the great movements of 20th-century painting, or one-hit wonder who quickly ran out of ideas?

More than 40 years after he shocked the US art world with early examples of what would become known as Pop Art, Roy Lichtenstein remains a difficult talent to assess.

He was the man who teased the "art" out of cartoons, an iconoclastic American artist best known for reproducing banal, cheesy, and often ugly comic strips, to unsettling effect.

Lichtenstein's wry, flat, shrill work thumbed its nose at the postwar gospel of Abstract Expressionism, and brought high art down with a "Whaam!"

Some were outraged. A profile in Life magazine in 1964 asked if he was "the worst artist in the US." But Lichtenstein was soon a household name, his work hanging in major museums, his paintings fetching record prices.

And yet, as a new retrospective at London's Hayward Gallery reveals, the Pop Artist seemed to run out of steam. While rival Andy Warhol kept the faith and reaped the celebrity, Lichtenstein delved deeper into formalist concepts about art that mystified even the avant-garde.

By the 1970s, he was training his eye on the legends of modern art, fusing his own motifs (Swiss cheese, a folding chair, a piercing shade of yellow) with those of Picasso, Matisse, and Magritte to produce work best described as perplexing.

"There's no question that his Pop work from early 1960s is very important," says British art critic Jonathan Jones, "but he seemed a bit insecure in moving on quite quickly to do art which was showing off its own cleverness - art about art. This retrospective makes him seem a one-note artist."

Lichtenstein was born in Manhattan in 1923 and fought in Europe in World War II. He was almost 40 when he produced his breakthrough piece, a reproduction of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck depicted in flat, almost machine-printed form. The stark piece with its silly caption (Look Mickey, I've Hooked a Big One!!) and its corny joke (Donald has actually hooked his own coat) brought out the vulgarity in an all-American icon, albeit in an affectionate way.

There followed a succession of pieces drawn from magazine ads and comic strips that contrasted the material comfort of the postwar boom with the emotional vacuity of the times. …