The Life and Work of Roy Lichtenstein, Pop Art Pioneer

Roy Lichtenstein pictured in front of his painting, Whaam!
Roy Lichtenstein stands in front of Whaam!, one of his most famous works. Wesley / Getty Images

Roy Lichtenstein (born Roy Fox Lichtenstein; October 27, 1923 – September 29, 1997) was one of the most prominent figures in the Pop Art movement in the United States. His use of comic book art as source material to create large-scale works in the Ben-Day dot method became a trademark of his work. Throughout his career, he explored art in a wide range of media, from painting to sculpture and even film.

Fast Facts: Roy Lichtenstein

  • Occupation: Artist
  • Born: October 27, 1923 in New York City, New York
  • Died: September 29, 1997 in New York City, New York
  • Education: Ohio State University, M.F.A.
  • Notable Works: Masterpiece (1962), Whaam! (1963), Drowning Girl (1963), Brushstrokes (1967)
  • Key Accomplishments: American Academy of Arts and Letters (1979), National Medal of the Arts (1995)
  • Spouse(s): Isabel Wilson (1949-1965), Dorothy Herzka (1968-1997)
  • Children: David Lichtenstein, Mitchell Lichtenstein
  • Famous Quote: "I like to pretend that my art has nothing to do with me."

Early Life and Career

Born and raised in New York City, Roy Lichtenstein was the oldest child of an upper-middle-class Jewish family. His father, Milton Lichtenstein, was a successful real estate broker, and his mother Beatrice was a homemaker. Roy attended public school until he was 12 years old. He then attended a private college preparatory high school until he graduated in 1940. 

Lichtenstein discovered his love of art in school. He played piano and clarinet, and was a fan of jazz music. He often drew images of jazz musicians and their instruments. While in high school, Lichtenstein enrolled in summer classes of the Art Student's League of New York City, where his primary mentor was the painter Reginald Marsh.

In September 1940, Roy entered Ohio State University, where he studied art and other subjects. His primary influences were Pablo Picasso and Rembrandt, and he often stated that Picasso's Guernica was his favorite painting. In 1943, World War II interrupted Roy Lichtenstein's education. He served for three years in the U.S. Army and continued as a student at Ohio State University in 1946 with assistance from the G.I. bill. Hoyt L. Sherman, one of his professors, had a significant influence on the young artist's future development. Lichtenstein earned his Master of Fine Arts from Ohio State in 1949.

Early Success

Lichtenstein had his first solo show in New York City in 1951, years after he graduated from Ohio State. His work at the time fluctuated between Cubism and Expressionism. He moved to Cleveland, Ohio, for six years, then in 1957 returned to New York, where he briefly dabbled in abstract expressionism.

Lichtenstein took a position teaching at Rutgers University in 1960. One of his colleagues, Alan Kaprow, a pioneer of performance art, became a new significant influence. In 1961, Roy Lichtenstein produced his first pop paintings. He incorporated the comic style of printing with Ben-Day dots to create the painting Look Mickey, featuring the characters Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Reportedly, he was responding to a challenge by one of his sons, who pointed at Mickey Mouse in a comic book and said, "I bet you can't paint as good as that, eh, Dad?"

In 1962, Lichtenstein had a solo show at the Castelli Gallery in New York City. All of his pieces were purchased by influential collectors before the show even opened. In 1964, amid his growing fame, Lichtenstein resigned from his faculty position at Rutgers to concentrate on his painting.

Emergence as a Pop Artist 

In 1963, Roy Lichtenstein created two of the best-known works of his entire career: Drowning Girl and Whaam!, both of which were adapted from DC comic books. Drowning Girl, in particular, exemplifies his approach to creating pop art pieces out of existing comic art. He cropped the original image to make a new dramatic statement, and used a shorter, and more direct, version of the text from the original comic. The massive increase in size gives the piece a very different impact from the original comic book panel.

Much like Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein's work generated questions about the nature and interpretation of art. While some celebrated the audacity of his work, Lichtenstein was heavily criticized by those who argued that his pieces were empty copies of something that already existed. Life magazine ran an article in 1964 titled, "Is He the Worst Artist in the U.S.?" The relative lack of emotional engagement in his work was seen as a slap in the face to the soul-baring approach of abstract expressionism. 

In 1965, Lichtenstein abandoned the use of comic book images as primary source material. Some critics are still bothered by the fact that royalties were never paid to the artists who created the original images used in Lichtenstein's large-scale works. 

In the 1960s, Roy Lichtenstein also created cartoon-style works with Ben-Day dots that reinterpreted classic paintings by art masters, including Cezanne, Mondrian, and Picasso. In the latter part of the decade, he created series of paintings that depicted comic-style versions of brushstrokes. The works took the most elemental form of traditional painting and turned it into a pop art object, and were intended to be a send-up of abstract expressionism's emphasis on gestural painting.

Later Life

In 1970, Roy Lichtenstein bought a former carriage house in Southampton, Long Island, New York. There, Lichtenstein built a studio and spent most of the rest of the decade out of the public spotlight. He included representations of his older works in some of his new paintings. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, he also worked on still lifes, sculptures, and drawings. 

Late in his career, Lichtenstein received commissions for large-scale public works. These works include the 26-foot Mural with Blue Brushstrokes at New York's Equitable Center, created in 1984, and the 53-foot Times Square Mural for the New York's Times Square Bus Station, created in 1994. The corporate logo for Dreamworks Records, commissioned by David Geffen and Mo Ostin, was Lichtenstein's last completed commission before his death.

Lichtenstein died of pneumonia on September 29, 1997 after several weeks of hospitalization.

Legacy

Roy Lichtenstein was one of the leading figures in the Pop Art movement. His method of turning ordinary comic strip panels into monumental pieces was his way of elevating what he felt were "dumb" cultural artifacts. He referred to pop art as "industrial painting," a term that reveals the movement's roots in mass production of common images. 

The monetary value of Roy Lichtenstein's work continues to increase. The 1962 painting Masterpiece which sold for $165 million in 2017, features a cartoon bubble whose text is seen as a wry prediction of Lichtenstein's fame: "My, soon you will have all of New York clamoring for your work."

Sources

  • Wagstaff, Sheena. Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective. Yale University Press, 2012.
  • Waldman, Diane. Roy Lichtenstein. Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1994.