Primary concerns of a pop-art star

RED was one of Roy Lichtenstein's favourite colours. There it is, voluptuously, in his pastiche Nudes series from 1994, especially in the lips and nails of his comic-strip-style women. And yet, master printer Kenneth Tyler says, Lichtenstein never really got the red he wanted. ''We never nailed it,'' he says with disappointment.

Red, of course, is crucial to bright, bold pop art but notoriously difficult in the world of printing - scarlets, crimsons, burgundies, vermilions are tricky to get just right. Tyler should know: he collaborated with Lichtenstein on lithographs, screen prints, linecuts and even reliefs and difficult embossed artworks in the Tyler printing workshops for more than 30 years until the artist's death in 1997.

''Roy started out in painting having paint manufacturers make the red he wanted,'' Tyler says. ''But it was a hard red to come by in printmaking, especially in lithography, to get the right hue and the exact density. We never got as good a red as Roy really wanted - but it wasn't because we didn't try!''

Some of the results of their attempts will go on show at Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery next week. There are more than 100 works, all drawn from the National Gallery of Australia's Kenneth Tyler Collection, which comprises more than 7000 editioned prints, proofs, drawings, paper works, screens and illustrated books as well as a collection of rare candid photography, film and audio. The collection, sold or donated to the NGA, encompasses Tyler's work with big-name artists such as Lichtenstein, David Hockney, Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Frank Stella, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.

Tyler says all these artists, and the challenges offered with their work, were difficult in one way or another. ''They were all wonderful, too. If you're not difficult, you're not worth it.''

Lichtenstein, though, was consistently wonderful to work with - in a printmaking studio, the printer's expertise combined with the artist's creative vision mean that works of art become a collaboration. Lichtenstein, Tyler says, was professional, disciplined and incredibly hard-working but able to make compromises and hard decisions when something wasn't panning out as he hoped.

''He was also wonderful with his [printer] collaborators; he would know their names and what role they played and he would make sure to comment on it and let them know he was pleased,'' Tyler says.

Lichtenstein worked with this highly regarded printer - famous in his own right - at Tyler's Los Angeles and two New York State studios, during which time the pair developed a strong friendship. Of the 5000-plus artworks Lichtenstein produced during his life, several hundred were done with Tyler and his team - so enduring bonds developed as they nutted out the best way to turn the artist's formative drawings into prints.

''Roy was taught printmaking very early in school and those early prints are remarkable, dating back to the 1950s,'' Tyler says. ''He was the only pop artist that had a printmaking background - so when he came to work with us, he … therefore was interested in furthering his knowledge of technique.''

Tyler says the works in the travelling exhibition reveal how, in every project Lichtenstein and he embarked on, the artist would use his growing technical knowledge in a unique way. ''He was able to bridge the idea of different techniques with the talent to actually exploit them,'' he says.

NGA curator Jaklyn Babington, in the catalogue for Roy Lichtenstein: Pop Remix, describes Lichtenstein's work as ''slick, intelligent and humorous'', appropriating as it does from an astonishingly broad array of subject matter: romance and war comics, Ben-Day dot imagery, nudes, Monet's impressionist works, Max Ernst's surrealist art - even a $US10 bill.

His ability to ''identify cultural cliches and to repackage them as monumental remixes'' made his work iconic of 1960s-70s America, Babington says, in effect ''branding'' his work with a distinct ''look'' that many thought was vulgar: a 1964 article in Life magazine was headlined ''Is He the Worst Artist in the US?''.

In the piece, the artist was quoted as saying that the closer his work was to its original source the more threatening it was to the art world: ''I take a cliche and try to organise its forms to make it monumental … the difference is often not great, but it is crucial.''

Babington says the printmaking process helped Lichtenstein explore thoroughly his desire for his art to ''look like it has been programmed''. ''What was threatening about Lichtenstein's work was that on face value it appeared to be commercial design posing as high art,'' she writes. ''His work seemed to announce the erasure of the artist as author, replacing the human creator with the industrial machine.'' Retrospectively, however, she says Lichtenstein's subtle program crystallised as a creative strategy to ''expose the real America to itself''.

Tyler confirms that while Lichtenstein always referred to his work as an ''industrial'' process, he was adamant about doing as much as he could with his own hand. For him, making his preparatory drawings and collages by hand was a way of rendering a comic strip, historical painting or other image source into a parody or cliche, stripping it down so ''it would wind up being a Roy and no one else's''.

His tight control over drawing, Tyler says, was such that even though a drawing would be nourished or tickled as it went through the often long printing process, its power was evident from the outset. ''Roy's hand was in everything he did,'' Tyler says.

Tyler says that although Lichtenstein was fond of saying that the meaning of his work had little to do with fine-art painting, this wasn't quite true: ''There are a lot of metaphors in his work … but Roy was primarily a subject painter. He worked with what he saw, it wasn't abstract in that way. If you look back at his Ten Dollar Bill, which was drawn way back in the 1950s, and then look at his drawings and etchings later on, you can see … the DNA for the later work. It's all there, it unfolds itself - and that's what we would talk about a lot together.''

Indeed, Tyler says, having worked with Lichtenstein for so long, he misses those discussions.

''We looked forward to those yearly or two-yearly projects,'' he says, describing the artist as shy and guarded, but also as a wonderful diplomat and friend. ''He used to tell me the only thing he really wanted to do was to go in his studio and work - and the next week he'd be in your workshop! He did it in that discipline of his, working all the time, every day, producing an approach to printmaking that was not only intellectual but generous.''