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"Blue Nude" (1995): Lichtenstein's late works moved beyond Pop Art

In 1961 one of Roy Lichtenstein's sons pointed to a cartoon of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in a comic book and said: "I bet you can't paint as good as that." The artist, who was then 38 years old and a moderately successful painter working in a Cubism-infused Abstract Expressionist manner, rose to the challenge. He tweaked the original illustration — adding a speech bubble, reducing the palette to four colours, using the Ben Day dot system that was a staple of newsprint illustration — and produced Look Mickey.

The subject of the picture — two Disney characters having a fishing mishap with rod and hook — is almost incidental but the manner of the painting is everything. In reproducing by hand the techniques of mechanical printing he mimicked and satirised mass media culture. "I'm interested in what would normally be considered the worst aspects of commercial art," he later said, "I think it's the tension between what seems to be so rigid and clichéd and the fact that art really can't be this way." Not everyone bought into this rationale: Life magazine simply asked: "Is he the worst artist in the US?"

The comprehensive retrospective of his work at Tate Modern, which includes some 125 of his paintings and sculptures, offers ample proof that for all Life's disdain, Lichtenstein was no Mickey Mouse artist. He continued to experiment and adapt long after his unlucky-in-love girls and blazing fighter planes had made him famous. Unlike his fellow Pop Artist Andy Warhol he was not content to slip into repetition but was both art-historically literate and took an intellectual approach to painting. 

Although his critics claimed that he merely copied comic book or advertising imagery he always made sure the finished paintings were subtly different from his source material. It was the skill of the commercial artists that fascinated him, their facility at compressing a story into simple and direct imagery. Although he was aware of its limitations he could not escape his fascination: "I suppose I would still prefer to sit under a tree with a picnic basket rather than under a gas pump, but signs and comic strips are interesting as subject matter."

Lichtenstein is a paradoxical painter in that to understand that his are paintings at all they need to be seen in the flesh. It was something he acknowledged in the pictures he made in the mid-1960s of close-ups of brushstrokes and paint spatters, which he composed with dots and lines. It was present too in some of his little-known late works, such as his Chinese-inspired landscapes in which he combined genuinely painterly whorls with his Ben Day dots to create his own version of the Japanese woodcuts of Hokusai and Hiroshige. If commercial printing could use simple techniques to produce sophisticated combinations of colour and tone, then he could too.

It is this detached and self-referential aspect of his art (Look Mickey appears on the wall of his 1973 painting of the inside of his studio) that leaves it morally neutral. These are pictures about picture making and while they comment on the brashness and banality of consumer culture they express almost nothing of Lichtenstein's personality. As he himself said: "I'm not really sure what social message my art carries, if any. And I don't really want it to carry one. I'm not interested in the subject matter to try and teach anything, or to try to better our world in any way." If there is a tinge of regret in these words it was perhaps because he both studied and taught art before becoming a practitioner: he knew the full extent of what it was capable of.

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