THE Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s purchase of Roy Lichtenstein’s iconic In The Car 25 years ago now seems a visionary masterstroke, but some more recent acquisitions are worthy of attention too
Artist Rooms: Roy Lichtenstein
Scaling In the Car up makes clear how dramatic the comic book language really isDuncan Macmillan
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
Pop! When did it all begin? In 1952, really, when in a startling slide show at the ICA in London, Eduardo Paolozzi made the case for art to include all the oceans of imagery that we make for whatever purpose. To set part of this aside and call it art makes no sense. Using collage, his own art already embraced a huge range of imagery taken from comic books, pin-ups, books of popular science, magazines and much more. He opened up a vast new resource and in one early collage, by accident he also gave it a name: a gun goes off and a speech balloon says “Pop!” Later, things became more academic and Pop was treated as a contraction of Popular Culture. That, of course, missed the point, for it reinstated the distance between art and popular imagery that Paolozzi had abolished. But for a great many of those who followed in his footsteps both in Britain and America, playing with that distance was the real fun. It offered huge scope for irony and jokes. The Beatles did it brilliantly. So did Roy Lichtenstein, subject of an exhibition from Artist Rooms in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
Twenty-five years ago the SNGMA acquired his In the Car. It caused a fuss at the time, but has proved one of the most popular acquisitions the gallery ever made. It is classic Lichtenstein. An illustration from a romance comic blown up into a full-size painting, it shows a couple in a car. The girl is always the protagonist in these pictures. In this case she has no speech balloon, but the original comic displayed nearby helpfully provides it: “I vowed to myself I would not miss my appointment, that I would not go riding with him – yet before I knew it...” But you don’t need the explanation; she is being swept away by the handsome man driving the car. Comparison with the original also shows that all Lichtenstein has done is simplify the colour, cutting out orange to make the scheme simply primary red, yellow and blue. Otherwise the force of his image is there already in the work of the unknown draughtsman of the original comic. Scaling it up makes clear how dramatic the comic book language really is. But there is something else going on here, the piquant irony of making something monumental out of the comic’s romantic sentimentality. Nor does Lichtenstein distance himself entirely and so he preserves a certain innocence in the original love story, or perhaps in the audience for which it was intended. That is what gives the picture its charm.
The show, part of Artist Rooms, is devoted to Lichtenstein’s later work, but sadly it seems he made the mistake of supposing that the imagery was his own, not borrowed, and so he lost the playful irony which gives his Sixties work its appeal. Instead he works variations on Monet’s Waterlilies in his usual reductive style, but adding reflecting surfaces to mimic the water in the original paintings. He calls the results Reflections. They are shiny but unexciting. In a series of nudes, he returns to the imagery of comic book girls, but now he undresses them. “It [the female nude] was a good excuse,” he said, “to contrast undulating and volumetric forms”. I have heard some excuses for the enduring fascination of the female nude for male artists, but “Excuse me, my dear, while I undress you to contemplate your undulating and volumetric forms” is a new one.
A label comments on Lichtenstein’s “trademark” dots. To judge by the merchandise using his imagery in every conceivable form, trademark is a well-chosen word. Indeed his later works remind me of Jeff Koons’s glossy commodification of art, but, without the shock element that Koons exploits so well, they are too safe.
Lichtenstein occupies the main rooms on the west side of the ground floor of the SNGMA. The rest is filled with a new hang from the permanent collection, also called, a little confusingly, Reflections. The most interesting part of this is a reflection (again) on the human head in works on paper. Old and new are mixed together, so you get Allan Ramsay’s self-portrait, a powerful Käthe Kollwitz etching and a photo of Sara Lucas suggestively eating a banana, all juxtaposed. It’s a rich and varied mix. A lovely Picabia drawing overlaying two contrasted images of a woman, for instance, partners Picasso’s magnificent Weeping Woman. As the presence of the Ramsay drawing suggests, the Scottish works are mixed with the rest. An early Paolozzi drawing of a head is uncompromisingly fierce, but a study for a colossal Head by William McCance also holds its own in this company. So does a Bellany self-portrait done in hospital. A study by James Cowie and a striking portrait drawing by his friend Edward Baird both look good beside artists like Lèger, Munch and Lucian Freud, but a drawing of St Anthony by Peter Howson is not quite what it seems. It is actually a direct copy of an engraving of a damned soul by Blake which was itself made after an oil sketch by Fuseli. The label might, to advantage, have noted this intriguing pedigree.
The side rooms are devoted to displays by individual artists and to several rather hopeful pairings. Martin Creed and Sol LeWitt are shown together, for example. LeWitt’s Five Modular Structures was a bold, early purchase by the SNGMA. Two beautiful prints were added in a gift shortly afterwards. The gallery never followed up this initiative, however, but now Martin Creed is supposed to fill the gap. There is certainly an affinity, but as a big wall painting by Creed shows, he cannot match the cerebral beauty that makes LeWitt’s work so often sublime. Nor does hanging LeWitt’s beautiful Double Composition against Creed’s loud wall do much for either artist.
In a room on her own, Taryn Simon documents in photographs the bloodline of a Scottish thalidomide victim. It is a harrowing story and needs to be told, but, although making it into art gets it into the public domain, nevertheless there is perhaps just a faint, unsettling whiff of exploitation. It would be have been more telling if it had been presented anonymously. Louise Lawler follows Lichtenstein in reducing art works to graphic formulae. Salon Hodler, for instance, is a wall drawing in black vinyl outline of a room decorated with erotic works by the Swiss painter, Ferdinand Hodler. The black line is supposed to reduce it to the style of children’s book illustration. “These tracings,” we are told, “seem to dissolve into the walls of the gallery and have been described as the skeleton of the picture that came before.” Really? I think she just missed the point of what Paolozzi said so long ago.
In another room, Gabriel Orozco’s Pinched Works, tiny twists of clay scaled up into shiny aluminium sculptures, are impressive and chime well with an automatic drawing by Georges Hugnet hanging nearby, a graphic witness to the Surrealist cult of the unconscious. A film by Aurélien Froment of a working paper-making machine with a child reading a voiceover tries to make art out of banality, but without the nuance that Lichtenstein achieved, doesn’t have much success. Cathy Wilkes’s installation, We are Pro Choice, includes a ladder, a table, a naked female mannequin sitting on the lavatory, a broken glass and other sundry items. These things, we are told, represent the life choices open to a woman and, implicitly, also the constraints. If that is so, it is literal to the point of banality. It seems more a peevish complaint than a rallying cry, or shout of defiance.
If the large sum spent on Lichtenstein has proved a good investment over the years, I am not sure the same will be true of this expensive purchase.
• Roy Lichtenstein and Reflections both run until 10 January 2016
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