By Mike Collett-White
LONDON (Reuters) - For Roy Lichtenstein, it was better that the public was over-familiar with his work than not familiar at all, a point never lost on the American artist best known for his giant cartoon strip adaptations.
A major retrospective of the artist at London's Tate Modern puts famous images like "Whaam!" and "Drowning Girl" center stage, but also seeks to explain how Lichtenstein got there and where he went next.
Far less recognizable to most will be the Chinese-inspired landscapes, for example, his Mirror series or the black and white works of everyday objects like a tire, ball of twine and desk calendar.
Lichtenstein's widow Dorothy, in London to help promote the show of some 125 works, said he never got carried away by his success, partly because he came to it in his late 30s.
"He used to joke that someone was going to come and shake him and he'd be in a wheelchair in a nursing home ... and (them)saying 'time for your medicine again Mr. Lichtenstein'," she told a small group of reporters after the press preview.
"I do think he wore it lightly, because I think he basically viewed fame as something that could be fickle and was often fickle," she added.
Dorothy married the artist in 1968, and he died in 1997 aged 73. Since then his stature has grown, with important canvases fetching a small fortune at auction including "Sleeping Girl", which sold for $45 million at Sotheby's last year.
Perhaps surprisingly for someone who turned cartoon strips into high art, he never read comics as a child.
"But of course his children, the boys, had comic books - war heroes and all, and so he saw in those I think the great possibility for imagery," Dorothy explained.
"He really liked that heightened sense. They are archetypes really, you know the hero pilot and the beautiful girl falling in love or heartbroken."
Those ironic images of idealized beauty and glamorized violence came mostly from the early to mid-1960s, shortly after he broke with abstract expressionism and turned to mass culture imagery including comic strips and advertising.
The turning point came in 1961 with "Look Mickey", included in the Tate show, when Lichtenstein first copied cartoon characters aged 37 or 38.
That image, and an exhibition at the Leo Castelli gallery the following year, made him one of the central figures of American pop art but also divided critics and the public.
Dorothy believes that part of the appeal of Lichtenstein's comic strip images were their familiarity.
"When Roy and other artists of that time entered on the scene people were really relieved that they could recognize an image after sloughing the depths of abstract expressionism," she said, adding that other Lichtenstein works could, however, be seen as abstract.
One of his signature methods, running through the show featuring works from the 1950s through to the 1990s, was handpainted Benday dots that cover many of his canvases and contrast with black outlines and bright solid colors.
They can be found in his famous comic images, but also in landscapes and seascapes, adaptations of well-known works by other 20th century artists, nudes and Chinese paintings.
Throughout his career Lichtenstein engaged in a dialogue with other artists, from graphic to ancient Chinese to some of the giants of impressionism, cubism and surrealism.
According to the Tate, he considered Picasso the greatest 20th century artist, and the show includes "Femme d'Alger" of 1963, a re-working of Picasso's "The Women of Algiers" series.
In his interpretation of Claude Monet's "Rouen Cathedral" paintings, Lichtenstein's dots become so prominent that they obscure the image itself.
"The things that I have apparently parodied, I actually admire," Lichtenstein said of such works.
* "Lichtenstein: A Retrospective" runs from February 21 to May 27 at the Tate Modern in London. Admission is 14 pounds. It was previously staged at the Art Institute of Chicago and the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White)
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