Finding myself in Milan on business recently, I took the opportunity to duck out of the garish carnival of the city’s street life to take in an exhibition featuring one of the few artists who can out-dazzle a Milanese fashionista: Roy Lichtenstein.
The title of the show – Meditations on Art – is surely the curator’s idea of an in-joke. There is nothing pensive about these big, beautiful and bright compositions. They bring you the modern world as it is – loud brash and exhilarating.
Lichtenstein had one idea early on in his career and it lasted him his entire working life. It was, though, a very good idea – modern media is so saturating and enervating that we crave for it to be lampooned, turned into burlesque, and transformed into ironical high art. As early as 1951, he was sending up American artists in works such as ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware II’ which satirises the painting of the same name by Emanuel Leutze. But it was when he changed his aim from pompous American history painters to the no-less affected creators of modern comic books that he truly struck gold. The Benday dot pattern which Lichtenstein made his signature style was also appropriated – it is a process invented by a printer named Benjamin Day which uses the four process colours – cyan, magenta, yellow and black – to create subtler shades through precise repetition.
The reiteration of a single attitude, no matter how novel, can grow wearisome. I most enjoyed the sculptures in this show, where the light-headed comic book themes are rendered in clunky slabs of bronze and gold.
As I made my way around the gallery, it occurred to me that a final irony of Pop Art is that it shoved aside the comic book art it from which it stole, rendering the artists not piratical pioneers but the very emblem of mainstream cool – the ‘anti-aesthetic’ has become the only aesthetic, pop culture the sole culture. As Lichtenstein might put it: ‘Wham!’