Roy Lichtenstein was one of the key players in the rise of American Pop Art. While regarded by some as one of the most innovative artists of his time, others criticized his “comic-strip” inspired work as unoriginal and banal. In my opinion, Lichtenstein's work is a beautiful but literal reflection of contemporary culture, which is meant to be both thought provoking and controversial.
Lichtenstein was born in New York City and was raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. As the son of a successful real estate developer, Lichtenstein was able to explore his interest in art at an early age and began taking classes at Parsons School of Design and studying under realist painter Reginald Marsh in his teens. After graduating from high school he attended Ohio State University, but his studies were interrupted in 1943 when he was drafted and sent to Europe during World War II. After his service, he returned to Ohio to finish his undergraduate and master’s degrees in fine arts.
While working various odd jobs as a window display designer and commercial art instructor, Lichtenstein began exhibiting his work in galleries in New York City in Cleveland. His early paintings and prints were inspired by medieval knights, castles and maidens with a satirical twist. He then moved onto a Cubist series that paid homage to 19th century cowboys and Indians.
It wasn’t until his 40s that Lichtenstein developed his signature style. In the 1960s, while teaching at Rutgers University, he began to create work that both mocked the success of Abstract Expressionist artists such as Jackson Pollock and commented on American popular culture. His newer work drew inspiration from comic strips and illustrations from advertisements. To create his paintings, Lichtenstein cropped parts of comics and projected the image onto a canvas. From there, he meticulously painted the images, adding his own color and message. He wanted the paint to look mechanically applied, again mocking commercial art and advertising. The almost impersonal-looking stencil process of Lichtenstein was a significant departure from that of his contemporaries. Instead of the abstract and emotional techniques of Pollock, Kooning and Rothko, Lichtenstein's work was literal, formulaic and satirical. These tongue-in-cheek parodies of the art world and culture eventually became his most well known works.
Roy Lichtenstein, Brushstrokes, 1967, color screenprint on white wove paper.
“Brushstrokes” parodied the methods of Jackson Pollock and mocked the supposed importance of the brushstroke in Abstract Expressionism.
Roy Lichtenstein, The Ring (Engagement), 1962, oil on canvas.
Lichtenstein painted “The Ring (Engagement) as he was ending his first marriage and beginning a new love affair. The hovering ring is meant to symbolize the unattainable, uncertain and fantastical aspects of love and commitment.
Although he is primarily known for the high-impact, brightly colored paintings mentioned above, Lichtenstein also excelled in other mediums. Around the same time he was creating iconic works such as “Drowning Girl” and “Popeye,” Lichtenstein also explored drawing with pencil. These works are stylistically similar to his other comic-like paintings with crisp lines and Ben-Day dots creating an illusion of shading and depth.
Roy Lichtenstein, I Know How You Must Feel, Brad!, 1963, graphite pencil, pochoir, and lithographic rubbing crayon.
Roy Lichtenstein, Jet Pilot, 1962, graphite pencil.
I’m especially drawn to Lichtenstein’s pencil drawings because of the work we’ve done in this course so far. Instead of using traditional shading, Lichtenstein uses closely spaced dots and varying line weights to create depth. Not only does this technique make his images pop, it also gives it a unique texture. The range of color Lichtenstein is able to create with just a pencil is equally impressive, with some areas a very light grey and others solid black.
Furthermore, I enjoy the tongue-in-cheek commentary on society, the art world and consumerism that is present in each of his works. His subversive concept of creating a unique body of work from mass-produced images is incredibly compelling. Although the creativity of his work, along with that of other leaders of the Pop Culture Movement, was and still is heavily debated, I believe that Lichtenstein struck the perfect balance between fine art and entertainment.
Rondeau, James. Edlis/Neeson Collection: the Art Institute of Chicago. Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, 2016.
“Roy Lichtenstein.” Gagosian, www.gagosian.com/artists/roy-lichtenstein/artist-exhibitions. Accessed 21 Feb. 2017.
“Roy Lichtenstein Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works.” The Art Story, www.theartstory.org/artist-lichtenstein-roy.htm. Accessed 21 Feb. 2017.
“BIOGRAPHY.” Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, lichtensteinfoundation.org/biography/. Accessed 21 Feb. 2017.
“Roy Lichtenstein.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 2 Apr. 2014, www.biography.com/people/roy-lichtenstein-9381678#later-career. Accessed 21 Feb. 2017.