When the Tate bought Lichtenstein’s Whaam!, in 1966, the acquisition was condemned by some of the gallery’s trustees for being too avant-garde—and expensive. Documents in the Tate’s archives reveal that the purchase of Whaam!, 1963—the star of a touring retrospective that opens at Tate Modern on 21 February (until 27 May)—almost did not happen because of opposition from artist-trustees.
The story began in June 1966, when Richard Morphet, then an assistant keeper at the Tate, began negotiating to buy Whaam! with Ileana Sonnabend’s gallery in Paris, which worked with Leo Castelli, Lichtenstein’s New York dealer. Sonnabend quoted a market price of £5,382, but offered it to the Tate for £4,665. (In 1966, the average male salary was around £1,300 a year.) When Whaam! arrived in London for viewing, Morphet could hardly have been more enthusiastic. “We are very thrilled to see it. It is even better than I expected and I shall be bitterly disappointed if we fail to acquire it,” he told Sonnabend.
Morphet had not anticipated opposition from three key trustees: the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, the painter Andrew Forge and the critic Herbert Read. Writing to Hepworth, Read described Whaam! as “just nonsense”. However, other trustees were keener, and after negotiations, Sonnabend offered to reduce its price to £3,940.
In a briefing paper for the trustees, Morphet made his final appeal, stressing the painting’s importance. “The work of Lichtenstein constitutes one of this century’s most far-reaching extensions of the territory available for serious aesthetic exploration,” he wrote.
After a heated debate, the board of trustees agreed to the purchase in
December 1966. A Lichtenstein exhibition was also discussed. Forge questioned it provocatively, warning that it would be “wrong for the Tate to allow itself to become a platform for the newest of the new”. However, other trustees disagreed, arguing that abandoning avant-garde exhibitions would “deprive a modern museum of a source of vitality”.
News of the Tate’s acquisition of Whaam! unleashed a storm of protest from the public. Last month, Morphet told us that he vividly recalls being “constantly accosted at dinner parties” by people who said that all Lichtenstein had done was to present a comic strip as art. Whaam! also became linked with growing protests about the American military intervention in Vietnam, adding to the Tate controversy. The Tate’s director, Norman Reid, later said that the work had aroused more public interest than any acquisition since the Second World War. In 1969, Lichtenstein donated what he called a “pencil scribble”: his initial sketch for Whaam!. It was duly accessioned.
The planned Lichtenstein exhibition went ahead, opening at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1967 and moving on to the Tate the following year. The entire show came in a single lorry sent by sea and the total value of the 80 loans was £100,000.
Initially, the Stedelijk had said that the pictures coming from Amsterdam would be “packed in plastic wrappers and corrugated cardboard”. Packing cases would be too expensive. The Tate responded that “corrugated paper gives very little protection against any sharp edges or instruments and there would be a serious danger of the canvases being pierced”. In the end, the Stedelijk agreed to put hardboard on the back of the pictures (which, it said, was more than it had done for its recent Picasso loans).
There were 52,000 visitors to the show at the Tate, an excellent number considering that it ran for only one month. Reid told Lichtenstein that it had received more and better press coverage than any exhibition ever held at the gallery.
Forty-five years on, the current Lichtenstein retrospective has attracted 346,000 visitors to the Art Institute of Chicago, where it opened last year, and 160,000 to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Similar crowds are expected when the show arrives in London and at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (3 July-4 November). Three paintings, all lesser and much smaller works than Whaam!, have sold for more than $40m each since 2011.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Who opposed a £4,665 Lichtenstein?'