An essay on Lichtenstein’s Entablature 1975. Published as part of The Critical I Anthology, edited by Dr. Lucy Scholes, on the Tate Modern website.
Response to Entablature 1975 by Roy Lichtenstein | France Leon
My knowledge of Lichtenstein has been limited to his Romance paintings; those oversized cartoon strip images of women who always seem to be crying. On viewing the retrospective at Tate Modern I come to realise the scope of his work and I now see him with renewed interest.
The exhibition takes us through from his Early Abstractions and Pop Art stage to his late Chinese Landscapes, although not necessarily in chronological order. It is evident that Lichtenstein’s work rethinks in such a way that provokes the viewer into seeing things from a different perspective.
I loved discovering his brass sculptures; the extracted design of art deco handrails and architectural features. They are simply stunning. His reworking of painters such as Picasso, Matisse and Mondrian were also as intriguing as they were amusing.
Among all the works I was fascinated by one in particular; possibly one that many would walk past, despite its size. It is simple, but it draws on something that we take for granted everyday.
Entablature is a painting with an imposing, statuesque aura. The conflicting styles of minimalist presentation and classical architecture are brought together in this large banded frieze of cool blues, whites and silver; complete with the artist’s trademark Benday dots. It is majestic, it is regal, it demands my attention and I give it willingly.
For half an hour I contemplate; some time standing close, some time standing at a distance until I find myself cross-legged on the floor writing notes. It is while I’m sat on the floor that it dawns on me. Within this work is a musicality; a beat that emits from the painting, like a metronome or perhaps a clock ticking with the passing of time. This brings to mind my experience, some years ago, of standing before Jackson Pollock’s Summertime (1948). Although Pollock’s action painting has a rhythmic freedom, such as in a piece of jazz music, my reaction to each work was notably similar; I am held by more than just the paint on the surface.
Both paintings are long horizontal canvases. Both require contemplation, and for me the experience of each is much like that of standing before an alter-piece. Two artists, polar opposites, and two paintings that are seemingly worlds apart but that share not only a musicality, but also a reference to classicism. Pollock, whether wittingly or not, achieved a painting that many have commented appears to hide a frieze of figures behind the abstract paintwork.
Arguably though, Pollock painted freely from the unconscious with his pouring and dripping techniques, while Lichtenstein’s craft was more precise and designed. But both of these paintings would not look out of place perched upon a couple of Ionic columns.
I leave the gallery with my head held high. Not because I feel grandiose with some great revelation, but because if there is one thing that Lichtenstein’s painting has left me with, it is a revived appreciation for our cities’ architecture. I question how classicism has been used by and translated in our modern capitalist culture, how our institutions have used these designs to heighten their stature and importance.
In the days following I notice whilst on my way to work that where a bank once presided in a building with columns and entablature, I now see an instantly recognisable red and yellow McDonald’s sign. It is almost allegorical and certainly seems to fit the themes of Lichtenstein’s comment on high art versus low art. It is conflicts and contrasts such as these that make Lichtenstein’s work as relevant today as it was forty years ago.