United States • 1923−1997

Roy Fox Lichtenstein (October 27, 1923 – September 29, 1997) was an American artist, one of the most influential pop art figures. In the 60s of the twentieth century, he began to create paintings based on the images from comic book magazines, which made him very prominent both in America and abroad. At the same time, he began to paint a series of hommages – references to paintings by famous artists, for example, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse. Furthermore, Liechtenstein created sculptures with a pattern imitating a raster print at different periods of his artistic creativity.

Features of Roy Lichtenstein’s artworks: The artist painstakingly worked on every painting created on the basis of comics. The artist did not just copy the original images; he changed the composition, added details and significantly simplified the color scheme. As a basis, he took the same colors that Piet Mondrian used in his works: red, yellow, blue, black and white. The main feature of Liechtenstein’s works was imitation of raster printing – the so-called “Ben-Day dots”.

Famous paintings by Roy Lichtenstein: “Whaam!”, “Blam”, “Drowning Girl”, “Look Mickey”, “In the Car”, “Yellow Brushstroke”.
One day, his son showed Roy Lichtenstein a page from a comic strip magazine about Mickey Mouse and asked: “I bet you can’t draw so well?” The artist easily accepted the challenge and created his first famous painting, “Look Mickey.” Since then, comics had become an essential part of his life and the central motif of his work.

America’s worst artist

For his first painting, with which began the “comics” period in his work, Lichtenstein chose Mickey Mouse and not by chance. According to the artist, the Disney mouse conveyed that particular image in which no one would have thought of looking for, at least, something from high art. Mickey, in a certain sense, was a complete opposite of it. In fact, that was the value of comics for Lichtenstein. It was a real personification of mass culture along with teenage culture. All those hypertrophied explosions, onomatopoeia in signatures and unrealistic heroes suited the world of teenagers with their eternal maximalism better than anything. Nobody even tried to take comic book culture seriously and look for some artistic merit in those bright magazines. Actually, the “comic book culture”, in its appearance, should largely be thankful to Lichtenstein. Very soon, the term “graphic novel” would come into use and there would be a lot of talk about the dark aesthetics of comics in the noir style.

However, unlike the original sources, Lichtenstein’s works were subjected to much more severe criticism. In the early 60s, after many years of living in Ohio and New Jersey, he returned to his native New York and exploded the American cultural capital with his flashy paintings with flat images of baked potatoes, hot dogsdeep fryers and washing machines. The artist owed his sudden popularity to the famous art dealer Leo Castelli, who organized Lichtenstein’s solo exhibition in 1962. The fact that he had already become a very popular figure in the artistic circles of New York by that time was evidenced by the presentation of most of his paintings at the exhibition which were all bought by influential collectors before the exhibition itself even began.

Immediately after that exhibition, a flurry of accusations of vulgarity and “emptiness” fell on Lichtenstein. “Life” magazine even called him America’s worst artist. In response to all the attacks, Lichtenstein did not remain silent, but gave reciprocal interviews, defending his point of view on his own paintings and art as a whole. Among other things, Lichtenstein was accused of thoughtlessly copying pages from magazines, without creating anything fundamentally new. He repeatedly claimed that he subjected each selected image to “fundamental transformation, but this is difficult to prove with the help of any rational argumentation”.

Lichtenstein’s works were attacked not only by art critics. As you might guess, he fell out of favor with the comic book authors as well. When the artist’s painting “I can see the whole room ... and there’s nobody in it!” was exhibited at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, William Overgard, the author of the comic strips “Steve Roper,” from which Lichtenstein borrowed the original image, wrote an offended letter to the newspaper. Overgard said that he was extremely glad that his work was exhibited in the museum, only it was signed not by his name, and Lichtenstein had hopelessly ruined it. Once again, the artist was at the center of the scandal. Coming up against Lichtenstein and Warhol (who also portrayed Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck), the comic book authors said that if those artists could shamelessly steal their work, they could create their own pop art in return. Then an exhibition was organized, which the insulted graphics collected from Campbell soup cans and boxes of washing powder. As it was expected, the exhibition was a failure, and even the comic book authors themselves did not like it. In all likelihood, at some point, they understood what the fundamental difference between their works and paintings of pop artists consisted in the following: representatives of pop art did not copy surrounding reality thoughtlessly, but they did it in their own manner – often cold and detached – they expressed their attitude to popular culture through its most vivid images. Whatever it was, neither Overgard nor other authors decided not to start any copyright proceedings eventually.

Versatility and experiments

Roy Lichtenstein was born in New York on October 27, 1923 in a family with German-Jewish roots. The son of a builder and a housewife had shown interest in art since childhood, but he was not limited only to painting. He listened with rapture to science fiction radio broadcasts, collected model airplanes and spent hours wandering around The Natural History Museum. As a teenager, Roy attended watercolor courses and assembled his own jazz band in high school.

By 1940, Roy finally decided on who he wanted to become in the future, and began to study painting with Reginald Marsh in The Art Students League of New York. Then Lichtenstein created the first paintings in the style of social realism. Later that year, he entered The Ohio State University, where, in addition to drawing and design, he studied botany, history and literature. At that time, the style of his work was changing: he painted portraits and still lives, in which the influence of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque was clearly visible.

Soon, war fell upon the world, and Lichtenstein made a decision to interrupt his studies in order to serve his country. In preparation for the service, he studied languages, attended engineering and flight courses. But in the army, Lichtenstein was, for the most part, engaged in the work of secretary and draftsman, copying images from the army newspaper. The artist received an honorable resignation in 1946, having managed to visit France, England, Belgium and Germany. After that, he returned to the university, received a bachelor’s degree and remained at the university for another ten years – already as a teacher.

In all likelihood, while serving in the army, Lichtenstein dreamed of becoming a pilot, and, according to some art historians, that was reflected in his later works based on comics. You can pay attention to the fact that in his paintings he never used the fantastic and “superheroic” comics, which were especially popular at that time. A lot of Lichtenstein’s works were based on the All-American Men of War series, in particular, the recurring plane crash motif (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). As for his post-war paintings, despite the seriality of the narratives, the artist did not adhere to one style for a long period of time. After animalistic sculptures, portraits and still lives, he experimented with expressionism and biomorphic surrealism. Later, Lichtenstein, whose artworks had already begun to be exhibited in galleries, painted portraits of musicians, road workers and racers in the spirit of paintings by Paul Klee.

In one of the Cleveland galleries, the artist met his future wife Isabel Wilson. In 1951, his first solo exhibition was held in New York, and later that same year he moved to Cleveland and began to paint portraits of cowboys and Native Americans, earning a living by engineering and drawing work. At the same time, Lichtenstein created a unique rotating easel, which allowed him to rotate the canvas directly during work in order to be able to paint from any angle. Inspired by the new method of work, the artist spoke of his invention as follows: “I create my paintings upside down or turning them sideways. Often I don’t even remember what they are about. My focus is not on the narrative.”

Roy and Isabel divorced shortly after the birth of their second son. The artist temporarily settled in New Jersey, enrolling at Rutgers University as a teacher, and then finally moved to New York, where he lived until the end of his days. However, in 1960, in New Jersey, Lichtenstein managed to get to know the man who influenced all his further work. That person was the artist Allan Kaprow, who was called one of the predecessors of pop art. Shortly after meeting him, Liechtenstein painted “Look Mickey.”

It was not just about comic books

Despite the fact that Lichtenstein was glorified by the artworks painted on the basis of comics, the period in which he created them did not last for even ten years. Already in the second half of the 60s, the artist began to turn to new narratives and images, while invariably using imitation of a printed raster as a “business card” - the “Ben-Day” dots.

Against a dotted background, he painted his famous giant canvases with “printed” thick brushstrokes of paint (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). In his unique style, he copied the works of PicassoMondrian and Van Gogh, created paintings with references to MatisseDali and de Chirico. With the help of dots, black lines and the same set of colors, Lichtenstein painted landscapesportraits and interiors.

However, special attention should be paid to the artist’s work on glasses and mirrors. The first of those can be called “Magnifying Glass”, painted in 1963, and already in the 70s he created a series of mirrors and glasses, surprisingly managing to convey the depth and play of light with one set of expressive means (1, 23 , 4, 5, 6, 7).

In 1978, Lichtenstein painted his most famous self-portrait: an empty white T-shirt of an unknown brand, above which a similar empty mirror hangs in the air in the place of his head. That, probably, was the whole essence of pop art: the artist did not process images, splashing inner feelings onto the canvas, as it was in the era of abstract expressionism, but rather reflected what society demonstrated to him.

Written by Evgenia Sidelnikova

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