A slew of Lichtenstein retrospectives sparks revived interest in the artist's iconic style.
Art influencing fashion is certainly nothing new when we think historically about the relationship between the two fields. A brief tour of the past century demonstrates designers’ reinterpretation of a particular artist’s style for the body, as in the case of Yves Saint Laurent’s shift dresses printed with Piet Mondrian-style colour-blocked squares (1965), or, more recently, Rodarte’s tribute to Fra Angelico in 2011 and Alexander McQueen’s exploration of Byzantine art in his final collection for his namesake label in 2010. But what is it about the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein that has designers still referencing his work that once shocked and appalled viewers? At the spring/summer 2014 menswear shows, no less than five designers employed the dot prints and diagonal stripes of the pop artist, re-appropriating his style of work just as Lichtenstein had re-appropriated that of advertising and comic books.
That two major surveys of the artist’s work has just opened at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, and the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, following another show at the Tate Modern, London, certainly makes his work of-the-moment and, perhaps not surprisingly, most of the references to Mr Lichtenstein came via Europe, including Burberry’s Christopher Bailey, Jonathan Saunders, Bottega Veneta’s Tomas Maier and Kris Van Assche. Where some, such as Mr Bailey and Mr Saunders, directly referenced Mr Lichtenstein’s trademark pin-dot patterns, Mr Maier, for one, cleverly explored the two-dimensionality of the artist’s work with contrast outlines applied to shirt and jacket collars and lapels.
I spoke with Jaklyn Babington, curator of international prints, drawings and illustrated books at the National Gallery of Australia who curated the current show, Roy Lichtenstein: Pop Remix, which traces the artist's print projects from the 1950s to 1990s, "exploring how he appropriated, transformed and remixed numerous art historical sources include Claude Monet's Impressionism, Max Ernst's Surrealism and Willem de Kooning's Abstract Expressionism.
What has been the reaction to the show in Canberra?
It has been fantastic. I think Lichtenstein is one of those artists that you can't not know of, or if you don't know his name you know the works and his iconic style. We tried to aim the show at a bit of a younger audience, and repackage or remix his work for a new generation of art viewers, but there's been a great response across the board.
With shows at the Pompidou, the Tate and the National Gallery, we're experiencing Lichtenstein mania - why do you think there has been so many exhibitions in the past few months?
I think he never really went out of favour. I think Pop Art in general is one of the blue chip areas of art history and that its popular appeal is long lasting, it's not something that's fashionable just for a period of time or a group of people or age group or demographic. I think everyone can see something they like in Pop Art. Alongside [Andy] Warhol you have to consider Lichtenstein to be one of the most important artists of the era. I think he was doing something different. He aligned himself with the advertising industry, he aligned himself with the commercial world, which artists before had not explored. Pop Art was almost the first cross-disciplinary movement in a way, because they explored mechanisation, industrialisation, advertising strategies; Lichtenstein is a master of the brand and the logo. You can see him adopting all sorts of strategies and a growing commercial culture that I think is different for artists in the late 20th century, which makes his influence cross boundaries between high art, fashion, even commercial products.
And he really saw no division between fine art and commercial products, a little like Takashi Murakami today.
Well he not only worked in painting, print and sculpture, but also produced fashion dresses, commercial products such as paper plates, kitchenware. He was doing that in the sixties far before Murakami. Warhol did it too, but Lichtenstein delved deeper into the advertising industry and looked at what he could appropriate from that sphere and apply to fine art.
Do you think the popularity of his work today is in some ways a reaction to digital culture, given we’re fed so much via Instagram and channels like that?
In a way Lichtenstein operated kind of like a graphic designer, and his whole thing was about taking his source material, deconstructing it and editing it, recomposing it by putting it through a rigorous process of compositional balance and pictorial reunity. What he ended up doing was taking low art source imagery, from trashy comic books or magazines, and repackaged it as high art. I like that term – packaging – because it aligns him with commercial spheres. That process of remixing is something all of us can do on our computer in a few minutes today with all sorts of software. Appropriation in that way today is not a big deal, but this is an artist that spent his entire career repacking found images. That shock tactic is something we probably don't understand now, because it's not shocking anymore, but in the sixties the development of Pop Art came at a time when the art world had been dominated by abstract expressionism for two decades, With Jackson Pollock and de Kooning, who were about the gestural emotion of the solitary painter, the artistic genius. And then Pop Art comes along and suddenly does everything in extreme opposite: it's about figurative imagery that everyone can identify, rather than coming from an individual creator. [Pop Art] looked like it was made by a machine and no one understand it at first.
Do you think he’d be interested to see fashion designers reappropriating his style of art today?
Well as I said, Lichtenstein was interested in fashion. He worked on a series of silk dresses and produced them as commercial products alongside everything else he was creating. The title of the show, Pop Remix, is a play on words. That whole remix culture we live in today is a really interesting perspective from which to look back at Lichtenstein’s work. I think he would be thrilled that his work has continued in this remixing cycle across lots of different spheres of our visual culture. Lichtenstein said himself that his art was the art of reproduction, and it shocked people at the time, and over the course of his career it became more and more of an acceptable investigation. In a way he paved a very early path for all of the Postmodernists. Of course copyright laws have changed significantly since Lichtenstein was first appropriating found imagery, so I think that's a real hurdle for creatives working today, especially in say the music or fashion industry. Richard Prince is a good example of having been in court over remixing images that weren't his. Ironically, Lichtenstein’s estate is one of the most strict artist estates in terms of reproducing work. I'm sure the artist would have no problem with it, but we're in a very different world that's all about ownership.
Images from top:
Roy Lichtenstein Crak! 1963-64
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
© Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
Burberry spring/summer 2014.
Jonathan Saunders spring/summer 2014.
Kris Van Assche spring/summer 2014.