Roy Lichtenstein was one of the most influential and innovative artists of the second half of the twentieth century. He is preeminently identified with Pop Art, a movement he helped originate, and his first fully achieved paintings were based on imagery from comic strips and advertisements and rendered in a style mimicking the crude printing processes of newspaper reproduction. These paintings reinvigorated the American art scene and altered the history of modern art. Lichtenstein’s success was matched by his focus and energy, and after his initial triumph in the early 1960s, he went on to create an oeuvre of more than 5,000 paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, murals and other objects celebrated for their wit and invention.
Roy Fox Lichtenstein was born on October 27, 1923, in New York City, the first of two children born to Milton and Beatrice Werner Lichtenstein. Milton Lichtenstein (1893–1946) was a successful real estate broker, and Beatrice Lichtenstein (1896–1991), a homemaker, had trained as a pianist, and she exposed Roy and his sister Rénee to museums, concerts and other aspects of New York culture. Roy showed artistic and musical ability early on: he drew, painted and sculpted as a teenager, and spent many hours in the American Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Modern Art. He played piano and clarinet, and developed an enduring love of jazz, frequenting the nightspots in Midtown to hear it.
Lichtenstein attended the Franklin School for Boys, a private junior high and high school, and was graduated in 1940. That summer he studied painting and drawing from the model at the Art Students League of New York with Reginald Marsh. In September he entered Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus in the College of Education. His early artistic idols were Rembrandt, Daumier and Picasso, and he often said that Guernica (1937; Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid), then on long-term loan to the Museum of Modern Art, was his favorite painting. Even as an undergraduate, Lichtenstein objected to the notion that one set of lines (one person’s drawings) “was considered brilliant, and somebody’s else’s, that may have looked better to you, was considered nothing by almost everyone.”i Lichtenstein’s questioning of accepted canons of taste was encouraged by Hoyt L. Sherman, a teacher whom he maintained was the person who showed him how to see and whose perception-based approach to art shaped his own.
In February 1943, Lichtenstein was drafted, and he was sent to Europe in 1945. As part of the infantry, he saw action in France, Belgium and Germany. He made sketches throughout his time in Europe and, after peace was declared there, he intended to study at the Sorbonne. Lichtenstein arrived in Paris in October 1945 and enrolled in classes in French language and civilization, but soon learned that his father was gravely ill. He returned to New York in January 1946, a few weeks before Milton Lichtenstein died. In the spring of that year, Lichtenstein went back to OSU to complete his BFA and in the fall he was invited to join the faculty as an instructor. In June 1949, he married Isabel Wilson Sarisky (1921–80), who worked in a cooperative art gallery in Cleveland where Lichtenstein had exhibited his work. While he was teaching, Lichtenstein worked on his master’s degree, which he received in 1949. During his second stint at OSU, Lichtenstein became closer to Sherman, and began teaching his method on how to organize and unify a composition. Lichtenstein remained appreciative of Sherman’s impact on him. He gave his first son the middle name of “Hoyt,” and in 1994 he donated funds to endow the Hoyt L. Sherman Studio Art Center at OSU.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Lichtenstein began working in series and his iconography was drawn from printed images. His first sustained theme, intimate paintings and prints in the vein of Paul Klee that poked lyrical fun at medieval knights, castles and maidens, may well have been inspired by a book about the Bayeux Tapestry. Lichtenstein then took an ironic look at nineteenth-century American genre paintings he saw in history books, creating Cubist interpretations of cowboys and Indians spiked with a faux-primitive whimsy.
As with his most celebrated Pop paintings of the 1960s, Lichtenstein gravitated toward what he would characterize as the “dumbest” or “worst” visual item he could find and then went on to alter or improve it. In the 1960s, commercial art was considered beneath contempt by the art world; in the early 1950s, with the rise of Abstract Expressionism, nineteenth-century American narrative and genre paintings were at the nadir of their reputation among critics and collectors. Paraphrasing, particularly the paraphrasing of despised images, became a paramount feature of Lichtenstein’s art. Well before finding his signature mode of expression in 1961, Lichtenstein called attention to the artifice of conventions and taste that permeated art and society. What others dismissed as trivial fascinated him as classic and idealized—in his words, “a purely American mythological subject matter.”ii
Lichtenstein’s teaching contract at OSU was not renewed for the 1951–52 academic year, and in the autumn of 1951 he and Isabel moved to Cleveland. Isabel Lichtenstein became an interior decorator specializing in modern design, with a clientele drawn from wealthy Cleveland families. Whereas her career blossomed, Lichtenstein did not continue to teach at the university level. He had a series of part-time jobs, including industrial draftsman, furniture designer, window dresser and rendering mechanical dials for an electrical instrument company. In response to these experiences, he introduced quirkily rendered motors, valves and other mechanical elements into his paintings and prints. In 1954, the Lichtensteins’ first son, David, was born; two years later, their second child, Mitchell, followed. Despite the relative lack of interest in his work in Cleveland, Lichtenstein did place his work with New York dealers, which always mattered immensely to him. He had his first solo show at the Carlebach Gallery in New York in 1951, followed by representation with the John Heller Gallery from 1952 to 1957.
To reclaim his academic career and get closer to New York, Lichtenstein accepted a position as an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Oswego, in the northern reaches of the state. He was hired to teach industrial design, beginning in September 1957. Oswego turned out to be more geographically and aesthetically isolated than Cleveland ever was, but the move was propitious, for both his art and his career. Lichtenstein broke away from representation to a fully abstract style, applying broad swaths of pigment to the canvas by dragging the paint across its surface with a rag wrapped around his arm. At the same time, Lichtenstein was embedding comic-book characters figures such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in brushy, expressionistic backgrounds. None of the proto-cartoon paintings from this period survive, but several pencil and pastel studies from that time, which he kept, document his intentions. Finally, when he was in Oswego, Lichtenstein met Reginald Neal, the new head of the art department at Douglass College, the women’s college of Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The school was strengthening and expanding its studio art program, and when Neal needed to add a faculty member to his department, Lichtenstein was invited to apply for the job. Lichtenstein was offered the position of assistant professor, and he began teaching at Douglass in September 1960.
At Douglass, Lichtenstein was thrown into a maelstrom of artistic ferment. With New York museums and galleries an hour away, and colleagues Geoffrey Hendricks and Robert Watts at Douglass and Allan Kaprow and George Segal at Rutgers, the environment could not help but galvanize him. In June 1961, Lichtenstein returned to the idea he had fooled around with in Oswego, which was to combine cartoon characters from comic books with abstract backgrounds. But, as Lichtenstein said, “[I]t occurred to me to do it by mimicking the cartoon style without the paint texture, calligraphic line, modulation—all the things involved in expressionism.”iii Most famously, Lichtenstein appropriated the Benday dots, the minute mechanical patterning used in commercial engraving, to convey texture and gradations of color—a stylistic language synonymous with his subject matter. The dots became a trademark device forever identified with Lichtenstein and Pop Art. Lichtenstein may not have calibrated the depth of his breakthrough immediately but he did realize that the flat affect and deadpan presentation of the comic-strip panel blown up and reorganized in the Sherman-inflected way “was just so much more compelling”iv than the gestural abstraction he had been practicing.
Among the first extant paintings in this new mode—based on comic strips and illustrations from advertisements—were Popeye and Look Mickey, which were swiftly followed by The Engagement Ring, Girl with Ball and Step-on Can with Leg. Kaprow recognized the energy and radicalism of these canvases and arranged for Lichtenstein to show them to Ivan Karp, director of the Leo Castelli Gallery. Castelli was New York’s leading dealer in contemporary art, and he had staged landmark exhibitions of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in 1958 and Frank Stella in 1960. Karp was immediately attracted to Lichtenstein’s paintings, but Castelli was slower to make a decision, partly on account of the paintings’ plebeian roots in commercial art, but also because, unknown to Lichtenstein, two other artists had recently come to his attention—Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist—and Castelli was only ready for one of them. After some deliberation, Castelli chose to represent Lichtenstein, and the first exhibition of the comic-book paintings was held at the gallery from February 10 to March 3, 1962. The show sold out and made Lichtenstein notorious. By the time of Lichtenstein’s second solo exhibition at Castelli in September 1963, his work had been showcased in museums and galleries around the country. He was usually grouped with Johns, Rauschenberg, Warhol, Rosenquist, Segal, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Indiana and Tom Wesselmann. Taken together, their work was viewed as a slap in the face to Abstract Expressionism and, indeed, the Pop artists shifted attention away from many members of the New York School.
With the advent of critical and commercial success, Lichtenstein made significant changes in his life and continued to investigate new possibilities in his art. After separating from his wife, he moved from New Jersey to Manhattan in 1963; in 1964, he resigned from his teaching position at Douglass to concentrate exclusively on his work. The artist also ventured beyond comic book subjects, essaying paintings based on oils by Cézanne, Mondrian and Picasso, as well as still lifes and landscapes.
Lichtenstein became a prolific printmaker and expanded into sculpture, which he had not attempted since the mid-1950s, and in both two- and three-dimensional pieces, he employed a host of industrial or “non-art” materials, and designed mass-produced editioned objects that were less expensive than traditional paintings and sculpture. Participating in one such project—the American Supermarket show in 1964 at the Paul Bianchini Gallery, for which he designed a shopping bag—Lichtenstein met Dorothy Herzka (b. 1939), a gallery employee, whom he married in 1968. The late 1960s also saw Lichtenstein’s first museum surveys: in 1967 the Pasadena Art Museum initiated a traveling retrospective, in 1968 the Stedelijk Musem in Amsterdam presented his first European retrospective, and in 1969 he had his first New York retrospective, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Wanting to grow, Lichtenstein turned away from the comic book subjects that had brought him prominence. In the late 1960s his work became less narrative and more abstract, as he continued to meditate on the nature of the art enterprise itself. He began to explore and deconstruct the notion of brushstrokes—the building blocks of Western painting. Brushstrokes are conventionally conceived as vehicles of expression, but Lichtenstein made them into a subject. Modern artists have typically maintained that the subject of a painting is painting itself. Lichtenstein took this idea one imaginative step further: a compositional element could serve as the subject matter of a work and make that bromide ring true.
The search for new forms and sources was even more emphatic after 1970, when Roy and Dorothy Lichtenstein bought property in Southampton, New York, and made it their primary residence. During the fertile decade of the 1970s, Lichtenstein probed an aspect of perception that had steadily preoccupied him: how easily the unreal is validated as the real because viewers have accepted so many visual conceptions that they don’t analyze what they see. In the Mirror series, he dealt with light and shadow upon glass, and in the Entablature series, he considered the same phenomena by abstracting such Beaux-Art architectural elements as cornices, dentils, capitals and columns. Similarly, Lichtenstein created pioneering painted bronze sculpture that subverted the medium’s conventional three-dimensionality and permanence. The bronze forms were as flat and thin as possible, more related to line than volume, and they portrayed the most fugitive sensations—curls of steam, rays of light and reflections on glass. The steam, the reflections and the shadow were signs for themselves that would immediately be recognized as such by any viewer.
Another entire panoply of works produced during the 1970s were complex encounters with Cubism, Futurism, Purism, Surrealism and Expressionism. Lichtenstein expanded his palette beyond red, blue, yellow, black, white and green, and invented and combined forms. He was not merely isolating found images, but juxtaposing, overlapping, fragmenting and recomposing them. In the words of art historian Jack Cowart, Lichtenstein’s virtuosic compositions were “a rich dialogue of forms—all intuitively modified and released from their nominal sources.”v In the early 1980s, which coincided with re-establishing a studio in New York City, Lichtenstein was also at the apex of a busy mural career. In the 1960s and 1970s, he had completed four murals; between 1983 and 1990, he created five. He also completed major commissions for public sculptures in Miami Beach, Columbus, Minneapolis, Paris, Barcelona and Singapore.
Lichtenstein created three major series in the 1990s, each emblematic of his ongoing interest in solving pictorial problems. The Interiors, mural-sized canvases inspired by a miniscule advertisement in an Italian telephone book, delve again into the perceptual ambiguities of reflections from windows and mirrors. The Nudes reprise the theme of women in a romance-comic mode, which Lichtenstein had introduced in the 1960s and amplified in lush Surrealist-inspired beach scenes in the 1970s. As with the Interiors, there is ample quotation of elements from earlier canvases, the furniture of Lichtenstein’s painted world. He also used the series to investigate mixing chiaroscuro (which he devised with dots and shading) with flat areas of color. This effect was brought to an ultimate pitch in his Chinese Landscapes, Lichtenstein’s final encounter with a monumental art tradition—and one of his most subtle. Configurations of land, water, mountains and air found in Song dynasty paintings and scrolls are simulated by softly drifting fields of graduated dots. None of Lichtenstein’s usual black outlines define the monochromatic forms, which heightens the contemplative and abstract quality of the series.
In August 1997, Lichtenstein fell ill with pneumonia. He died unexpectedly of complications from the disease on September 29, 1997, at the age of 73, in New York City.
i. Alvin Katz, interview by the author, July 2, 2002, Roy Lichtenstein Foundation Archives, New York.
ii. John Coplans, “An Interview with Roy Lichtenstein,” Artforum, Vol. 2, No. 4 (October 1963), p. 31.
iii. Milton Esterow, “Conversation: How Could You Be Much Luckier Than I Am?”, ARTnews, Vol. 90, no. 1 (May 1991), p. 91.
v. Jack Cowart, Roy Lichtenstein 1970–1980 (New York: Hudson Hills Press, in association with the St. Louis Art Museum, 1981), p. 109.