I’ve just seen the Lichtenstein exhibition at Tate Modern; it’s on until 27 May if you want to catch it. It’s interesting as a lesson in art history, but disappointing as an artistic experience. Not many of the paintings have any real power or beauty; the tones and colours (from all the different periods) are so limited; and even in terms of line and draftsmanship the images seem either simplistic and without much grace or overcomplicated and unbalanced.
The exception is the famous comic book art from the early 1960s, and I’d almost call these masterpieces: “M-maybe he became ill and couldn’t leave the studio”, “Whaam”, “Oh Jeff I love you too but…”
The history is important. When the Western art establishment was locked into abstract expressionism (which I love), along came Lichtenstein and WHAAM: he put some energy, drama, line and subject matter back into painting. You can argue as much as you like whether it was celebratory or ironic or just commercially clever. The fact is that in almost a single gesture it brought Western art back to where it had been for three thousand years: using images to tell stories. Lichtenstein’s pop art is about recovery and restoration. In the late 1950s, comic books were more in the mainstream of the Western canon than the studios of Manhattan and Chicago, and it took Lichtenstein to remind everyone of that.
It is the aesthetic of the ‘pregnant moment’. If you already know, more or less, the story, then you don’t need to read the whole comic. You just need to choose a single frame, a pregnant moment, which captures the drama and allows us to insert ourselves into the story. This is as true for WHAAM and M-maybe as it is for a painting of the Nativity or the Birth of Venus. The narrative fans out, forwards and backwards, from that key moment, just as the future and the past are continually fanning out from the present in ordinary human experience. We are only ever within a single moment, but we can’t experience or interpret that moment without being conscious of some kind of story.