American Artist and Sculptor
Born: October 27, 1923 - New York, New York
Died: September 29, 1997 - New York, New York
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"I'm never drawing the object itself; I'm only drawing a depiction of the object - a kind of crystallized symbol of it."
Roy Lichtenstein was one of the first American Pop artists to achieve widespread renown, and he became a lightning rod for criticism of the movement. His early work ranged widely in style and subject matter, and displayed considerable understanding of modernist painting: Lichtenstein would often maintain that he was as interested in the abstract qualities of his images as he was in their subject matter. However, the mature Pop style he arrived at in 1961, which was inspired by comic strips, was greeted by accusations of banality, lack of originality, and, later, even copying. His high-impact, iconic images have since become synonymous with Pop art, and his method of creating images, which blended aspects of mechanical reproduction and drawing by hand, has become central to critics' understanding of the significance of the movement.
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Drowning Girl (1963)
In the early 1960s, Lichtenstein gained renown as a leading Pop artist for paintings sourced from comic books, specifically DC Comics. Although artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns had previously integrated popular imagery into their works, no one hitherto had focused on cartoon imagery as exclusively as Lichtenstein. His work, along with that of Andy Warhol, heralded the beginning of the Pop art movement, and, essentially, the end of Abstract Expressionism as the dominant style. Lichtenstein did not simply copy comic pages directly, he employed a complex technique that involved cropping images to create entirely new, dramatic compositions, as in Drowning Girl, whose source image included the woman's boyfriend standing on a boat above her. Lichtenstein also condensed the text of the comic book panels, locating language as another, crucial visual element; re-appropriating this emblematic aspect of commercial art for his paintings further challenged existing views about definitions of "high" art.
Oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas, © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Roy Fox Lichtenstein was born in New York City in a family with a German-Jewish background. He grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with his father Milton, a real-estate broker, his mother Beatrice, a homemaker, and his younger sister Renee. As a child, Lichtenstein spent time listening to science fiction radio programs, visiting the American Museum of Natural History, building model airplanes, and drawing. As a teenager he nurtured his artistic interests by taking watercolor classes at Parsons School of Design, and in high school he started a jazz band.
In 1940, Lichtenstein began taking Reginald Marsh's painting classes at the Art Students League, producing work very similar to Marsh's social realist style. Later that year, Lichtenstein enrolled at Ohio State University (OSU), where he studied drawing and design along with botany, history, and literature. He created sculptural animal figures, as well as portraits and still life works influenced by the work of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. At OSU, Lichtenstein also took a class with Hoyt Leon Sherman, whose theories about the connection between vision and perception, or "organized perception," became important concepts for Lichtenstein as his work evolved.
In 1943, Lichtenstein was drafted into the Army. As part of his tour of duty, he took engineering courses at De Paul University in Chicago. He also served as a clerk and draftsman, enlarging army newspaper cartoons for his commanding officer. He then traveled with the Army to England, France, Belgium, and Germany. After receiving an honorable discharge in 1946, the artist returned to OSU to complete his Bachelor's degree in Fine Arts. The next year he joined the graduate program at the University and served as an art instructor. His art at this time was inspired by aspects of Abstract Expressionism and biomorphic Surrealism.
In the next several years his work was included in gallery shows, such as a group exhibition at the Ten-Thirty Gallery in Cleveland, where he met his future wife Isabel Wilson, the gallery assistant at Ten-Thirty. By this stage, his paintings featured musicians, street workers, and racecar drivers rendered in biomorphic shapes and in a style that recalled the Surrealist work of Paul Klee. Over the next several years, Lichtenstein's paintings featured birds and insects in this same Surrealist style, as well as medieval motifs, particularly imagery of knights and dragons. In addition to strictly two-dimensional paintings, Lichtenstein began nurturing what would become a long-standing interest in using multiple media; in his first solo show in New York, at Carlebach Gallery (1951), he exhibited three-dimensional assemblages of kings and horses made of wood, metal, and found objects.
After moving to Cleveland with Isabel, Lichtenstein took on a number of commercial engineering and drafting jobs. His work at this time focused on cowboy and Native American motifs; more significantly, he created a rotating easel to be able to easily paint from all angles. The method of working (the rotation of the canvas) was more compelling to Lichtenstein: "I paint my own pictures upside down or sideways. I often don't even remember what most of them are about... The subjects aren't what hold my interest." In 1952, John Heller Gallery in New York began representing his work. Lichtenstein took an assistant professor position at SUNY Oswego in 1957, where his thickly textured paint and abstracted imagery drew from the Abstract Expressionist style. Unlike the Abstract Expressionists, however, he began to incorporate figures into his canvases; some of his paintings featured characters such as Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse hidden among the other depicted forms. Lichtenstein continued to teach, moving on to Rutgers's Douglass College in 1960 as an assistant professor, where he met Allan Kaprow. Kaprow introduced Lichtenstein to Claes Oldenburg, Lucas Samaras, Robert Watts, George Segal, Robert Whitman and others who were integral members of the "happenings" art scene of the 1950s and 60s. The group produced unique performative art pieces that differed each time depending on audience involvement, but Lichtenstein was inspired by their interest in cartoon imagery.
In 1961, Lichtenstein created Look Mickey, his first cartoon work using Ben-Day dots, a commercial printing style for comic books or illustrations where small, closely spaced, colored dots are combined to create contrasting colors. He later exaggerated these dots in his paintings, a technique that came to define his style. The technique he developed at this time blended aspects of hand-drawing and mechanical reproduction; by 1963 he had settled on a procedure by which he first reproduced the chosen panel from a cartoon by hand, then projected the drawing using an opaque projector, traced it onto a canvas, then filled in the image with bold colors and stenciled Ben-Day dots.
In 1961, gallery owner Leo Castelli began representing Lichtenstein's work, giving him a solo exhibition in 1962 that substantially elevated the artist's renown and revenue. His fame did not come without controversy; his compositions outraged some viewers, and prompted LIFE Magazine to call him "one of the worst artists in America," albeit in a tongue-and-cheek fashion. Nevertheless, Lichtenstein soon began to show his work in major national exhibitions. In the 1960s, he continued using the Ben-Day dot technique in images of women and WWII combat scenes, as in Drowning Girl (1963), mostly adapted from issues of DC Comics. These cartoon-inspired paintings established Lichtenstein as an extremely prominent and immediately recognizable Pop art figure, both revered and reviled for his challenges to traditional understandings of "fine art."
By the mid 1960s, Lichtenstein began creating large-scale murals, his first of which was produced in 1964 for the World's Fair in Flushing, Queens. Moving beyond figural depictions, Lichtenstein also broadened his use of Ben-Day dots and bold, solid colors to depict landscapes, as in Yellow Landscape(1965). Such works often integrated industrial materials such as Plexiglas, metal, and a shimmery plastic called Rowlux, reflecting the artist's continued interest in using media beyond simply paint and canvas. Lichtenstein also began to create ceramic sculptures and, most iconically, produced a series of paintings of giant, cartoon-like brushstrokes covering the canvas, images which seemed to mock the Abstract Expressionists' use of the brushstroke as a signature and tool of individual expression. The second half of the 1960s also marked Lichtenstein's separation from his wife Isabel, and, a few years later, his marriage to Dorothy Herzka.
Lichtenstein began producing prints in 1962, using the offset lithograph technique that was more often used in commercial printing, and he began a long-term collaboration with the printmaking studio Gemini G.E.L. in 1969. In the 1970s, he left New York City for Southampton, where, inspired by Modern masters, he created still lifes and works with diverse textures and materials. Sculpture became an important focus during this time, particularly the use of bronze, which he used to produce large, painted sculptures of everyday objects such as lamps, pitchers, and steaming coffee cups. Lichtenstein also created a series of paintings involving mirrors, inspired by the historical use of mirror imagery in paintings to create a space beyond the canvas, as well as by the abstract designs used to symbolize mirrors in graphic art.
By 1980, Lichtenstein was drawing from a wide variety of influences in his work, taking inspiration from Surrealism, Cubism, and German Expressionism, and using many different types of media. He re-established a studio in Manhattan and became more interested in Abstract Expressionism, as well as in Geometric Abstraction. He created a series of home interiors in the 1990s, basing his designs on ads in the Yellow Pages. Additionally, he continued to produce large paintings and sculptures for public spaces. In 1995, he received the National Medal of Arts. After his death in 1997, the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation was established in 1999.
Roy Lichtenstein played a critical role in subverting the skeptical view of commercial styles and subjects established by the Abstract Expressionists. By embracing "low" art such as comic books and popular illustration, Lichtenstein became one of the most important figures in the Pop art movement. While his paintings of cartoons and comics are his most recognizable work, he had a prolific and somewhat eclectic career that drew from Cubism, Surrealism, and Expressionism. But it is his re-imagining of popular culture through the lens of traditional art history that has remained a considerable influence to later generations of artists, as Pop art went on to significantly inform Postmodernism.
Influences and Connections
Artists, Friends, Movements
Artists, Friends, Movements
Content compiled and written by Rachel Gershman
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Useful Resources on Roy Lichtenstein
| Roy Lichtenstein: 1923-1997 |
By Janis Hendrickson
| Roy Lichtenstein: Classic of the New |
By Eckhard Schneider
| Lichtenstein: Girls |
By Richard Hamilton, Jeff Koons, Dorothy Lichtenstein, Richard Prince
| Roy Lichtenstein: Prints 1956-1997 |
By Elizabeth Brown, Dave Hickey, Roy Lichtenstein, Chris Bruce
| Roy Lichtenstein: Interiors |
By Robert Fitzpatrick, Dorothy Lichtenstein
| Roy Lichtenstein: Brushstrokes, Four Decades |
By Dave Hickey, Roy Lichtenstein
| Image Duplicator: Roy Lichtenstein and the Emergence of Pop Art |
By Michael Lobel
| Roy Lichtenstein: Conversations With Surrealism |
By Charles Stuckey, Roy Lichtenstein, Frederic Tuten, Jack Cowart
| Roy Lichtestein Foundation || Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein |
Comic book sources for many Lichtenstein works
| PORTRAITS, Talking with Artists at the Met, The Modern, The Louvre and Elsewhere (excerpt) |
By Michael Kimmelman
| NPR - 29 September 1997 |
| NPR - 4 October 2002 (interview originally from 1993) |
Late American Artist Roy Lichtenstein
| Dana Friis-Hansen interview on Roy Lichtenstein - 20 January 2008 |
Interview with Austin Museum of Art Director
| USA Arts |
Interview with Roy Lichtenstein, showing him at work in his studio
| Roy Lichtenstein: a new dimension in art |
By Lucy Davies
| The Painter Who Adored Women |
By Roberta Smith
| Time Reveals the Delicacy Within Lichtenstein's Playful Pop |
By Michael Kimmelman
| Roy Lichtenstein, Pop Master, Dies at 73 |
By Michael Kimmelman