The American artist Roy Lichtenstein, best known for his outsize comic-strip-style paintings and prints, was a founder of the Pop Art movement and, with Andy Warhol, one of its principal practitioners.
Born into a middle-class family in New York on 27 October 1923, Lichtenstein began to paint as a hobby at high school. With no art tuition included in his secondary education, he enrolled in 1937 for Saturday morning watercolour classes at Parsons School of Design in New York. These were followed by summer study at the Art Students League, under Reginald Marsh, and professional training at the School of Fine Arts of Ohio State University, where he was particularly influenced by the teaching of Hoyt L. Sherman. From 1943 to 1946 his studies were interrupted by army service in Europe. Returning to Ohio, Lichtenstein completed his Bachelor of Fine Art degree, moved on to the graduate programme and became an instructor. In 1949 he completed his master’s degree, married Isabel Wilson and held his first solo exhibition at Ten Thirty Gallery in Cleveland.
During the 1950s Lichtenstein continued to paint and experimented with printmaking, assemblages of found objects, and images from popular culture. His Ten Dollar Bill lithograph (1956) is one of his first forays into Pop Art. Meanwhile he took on various jobs in commercial graphic design and advertising. His sons were born in 1954 and 1956 and in 1957 he accepted a university teaching post in upstate New York. Lichtenstein became Assistant Professor at Rutgers University in 1960, there meeting Allan Kaprow and through him such other members of the artistic avant-garde as Claes Oldenburg and George Segal.
By this stage, Lichtenstein had passed through phases influenced by Cubism and Abstract Expressionism and was ready to launch into his own distinctive strand of Pop Art. ‘What interests me is to paint the kind of anti-sensitivity that impregnates modern civilization’, he said. He was propelled into the realm of comic strips by a showdown with one of his sons, who passed him the book Donald Duck Lost and Found and challenged: ‘I bet you can’t paint as good as that’. Look Mickey (1961) and subsequent paintings are massive enlargements of the original cartoons – that canvas is 1.7 metres wide – subtly changed and rendered as fine art. Painstakingly reproducing the screen dots of printed material in paint, Lichtenstein used the hard-edged outline figures and flat primary colours of comics and commercial packaging. Art historian and curator Diane Waldman explains: ‘He wanted to make painting that resembled clichés and, in so doing, to confront the clichés of art and the conventions that govern how we recognize art as art’.
New York’s Leo Castelli Gallery quickly took on Lichtenstein’s comic-strip paintings, displaying them in 1961 and giving him a solo exhibition the following year. Its success brought fame and in 1964 he was able to give up teaching. He took part in the 1966 Venice Biennale, had his first one-man show in Europe in 1967, was the subject of a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1969 and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1970. Having divorced in 1965, he married Dorothy Herzka in 1968.
In the 1970s and 1980s Lichtenstein created mostly series of works, such as ‘Artists’ Studios’, which comment wryly on the tradition of using the painter’s workroom as a subject. Canvases in the group include references to paintings by other artists, to advertising and to Lichtenstein’s own previous cartoons. Other series, such as ‘Cathedrals’ and ‘Haystacks’, contain particular art-historical references, while the blank ‘Mirrors’ sequence of 1970–1972 questions the assumption that representational art should reflect reality. A number of the later groups interpret or satirise such modernist art movements as Cubism and Surrealism.
Lichtenstein died in New York in 1997, leaving a body of around 4,500 works including sculptures as well as paintings and prints.