Lichtenstein: A Retrospective Exhibition guide: Introduction

A central figure of American pop art, Roy Lichtenstein (1923–1997) is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. In the early 1960s he broke with the precepts of abstract expressionism and hit upon a new concept of painting inspired by comic strips, advertising and mass culture imagery. The paintings were an instant sensation, provoking both delight and outrage. Over the following four decades, Lichtenstein’s work became internationally known for the visual power of his iconic paintings and his combination of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. 

This retrospective, the first comprehensive account of his art since his death, reassesses Lichtenstein’s enduring legacy. His celebrated pop subjects are followed by series of Brushstrokes, Mirrors, Entablatures, Perfect/Imperfect paintings, as well as his explorations of art historical movements, from classicism to art deco to cubism. The exhibition closes with two of his last series, Nudes and Chinese Landscapes: they suggest new directions in a career that remained dynamic up until the artist’s sudden death aged 73.

In early pop paintings such as Look Mickey 1961 and Whaam! 1963, Lichtenstein imitated the industrial techniques of comic books, using a palette of primary colours, heavy black outlines and Benday dots that simulated shadows and tonalities. This radical new style, which he further developed in his later paintings, enabled him to reflect wryly upon the condition of painting in an age of mechanical reproduction and omnipresent mass media, and to portray what he described as ‘a sort of anti-sensibility that pervades society’.

Throughout his prolific career Lichtenstein transformed already existing images – not just comic strips and advertisements but also well-known works by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse – in order to posit riddles about authorship and originality. His signature style was determined by the tension between the apparent superficiality of his pictures – always anchored by finely tuned compositions – and a highly intellectual approach towards the social role of the artist and what painting means in a post-industrial world.

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective Room 1

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern 2013: Exhibition guide: Room 1: Brushstrokes

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective Room 2

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern 2013: Exhibition guide: Room 2: Early pop

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective Room 3

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern 2013: Exhibition guide: Room 3: Black and white

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective Room 4

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern 2013: Exhibition guide: Room 4: War and romance

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective Room 5

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern 2013: Exhibition guide: Room 5: Landscapes/seascapes

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective Room 6

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern 2013: Exhibition guide: Room 6: Modern

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective Room 7

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern 2013: Exhibition guide: Room 7: Art about art

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective Room 8

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern 2013: Exhibition guide: Room 8: Artist’s studios

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective Room 9

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern 2013: Exhibition guide: Room 9: Mirrors and entablatures

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective Room 10

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern 2013: Exhibition guide: Room 10: Perfect/imperfect

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective Room 11

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern 2013: Exhibition guide: Room 11: Late nudes

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective Room 12

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern 2013: Exhibition guide: Room 12: From Alpha to Omega: Early abstractions and late ...

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective Room 13

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern 2013: Exhibition guide: Room 13: Chinese Landscapes