Roy Lichtenstein was one of the most influential and innovative artists of the second half of the twentieth century. He is preeminently identified with Pop art, a movement he helped originate, and his first mature paintings were based on imagery lifted from comic strips and advertisements rendered in a style mimicking the crude printing processes of newspaper reproduction. These paintings reinvigorated the American art scene and altered the history of modern art. Lichtenstein’s success was matched by his focus and energy, and after his initial triumph in the early 1960s, he went on to create an oeuvre of more than 5,000 paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, murals and other objects celebrated for their wit and invention.
Roy Fox Lichtenstein was born on October 27, 1923, in New York City. Roy showed artistic and musical ability early on: he drew, painted and sculpted as a teenager, and spent many hours in the American Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Modern Art. He played piano and clarinet, and developed an enduring love of jazz, frequenting the nightclubs in Midtown.
Lichtenstein attended Ohio State University in Columbus. In February 1943, he was drafted and sent to Europe in 1945. As part of the infantry, he saw action in France, Belgium and Germany. He made sketches throughout his time in Europe and, after peace was declared there, he intended to study at the Sorbonne, but had to return home because his father was gravely ill. In spring 1946, Lichtenstein completed his BFA at OSU and joined the faculty as an instructor that fall. In 1949, he married Isabel Wilson and received his MFA from OSU. Two years later, the couple moved to Cleveland, where their two children, David and Mitchell, were born. The Lichtensteins were divorced in 1965.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Lichtenstein began working in series using iconography drawn from printed images. In June 1961, Lichtenstein, now an assistant professor at Douglass College in New Brunswick, New Jersey, returned to the idea of combining cartoon characters from comic books with abstract backgrounds. But, as Lichtenstein said, “[I]t occurred to me to do it by mimicking the cartoon [style] without the paint texture, calligraphic line, modulation—all the things involved in expressionism” (Esterow 1992). Most famously, Lichtenstein appropriated the Benday dots, the minute mechanical patterning used in commercial engraving, to convey texture and gradations of color—a stylistic language synonymous with his subject matter. The dots became a trademark device forever identified with the artist and Pop art.
Among the first extant paintings in this new mode—based on comic strips and illustrations from advertisements—were Popeye and Look Mickey, which were swiftly followed by The Engagement Ring, Girl with Ball and Step-on Can with Leg.
With the advent of critical and commercial success, in 1963 the artist moved to New York and decided to concentrate exclusively on his art. The artist also ventured beyond comic book subjects, creating paintings based on oils by Cézanne, Mondrian and Picasso, as well as still lifes and landscapes. Lichtenstein became a prolific printmaker, and expanded into sculpture, which he had not attempted since the mid-1950s. In both two- and three-dimensional pieces, he employed a host of industrial or “non-art” materials, and designed mass-produced editioned objects that were less expensive than traditional paintings and sculpture. He married Dorothy Herzka in 1968. The late 1960s also saw Lichtenstein’s first museum surveys: in 1967 the Pasadena Art Museum initiated a traveling retrospective, while the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam presented his first European retrospective, and in 1969 he had his first New York retrospective, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Wanting to grow, Lichtenstein turned away from the comic book subjects that had brought him prominence. In the mid-1960s his work became less narrative and more abstract, as he continued to meditate on the nature of the art enterprise itself. He began to explore and deconstruct the notion of brushstrokes—the building blocks of Western painting. Brushstrokes are conventionally conceived as vehicles of expression, but Lichtenstein made them into a subject. Modern artists have typically maintained that the subject of a painting is painting itself. Lichtenstein took this idea one imaginative step further: a compositional element could serve as the subject matter of a work and make that bromide ring true.
In 1970 Roy and Dorothy Lichtenstein settled in Southampton, New York, making it their primary residence. During that fertile decade of the 1970s, Lichtenstein probed an aspect of perception that had steadily preoccupied him: how easily the unreal is validated as the real by viewers who accept so many visual conceptions that they don’t analyze what they see. Another entire panoply of works produced during the 1970s consists of complex encounters with Cubism, Futurism, Purism, Surrealism and Expressionism. Lichtenstein expanded his palette beyond red, blue, yellow, black, white and green, and invented and combined forms. In the early 1980s, coinciding with re-establishing a studio in New York City, Lichtenstein was at the apex of a busy mural career. He also completed major commissions for public sculptures in Miami Beach, Columbus, Minneapolis, Paris, Barcelona and Singapore. Lichtenstein created three major series in the 1990s, each emblematic of his ongoing interest in solving pictorial problems: Interiors, Nudes, and Chinese Landscapes.
In August 1997, Lichtenstein fell ill with pneumonia. He died unexpectedly of complications from the disease on September 29, 1997, at the age of 73, in New York City.
Text by Avis Berman, © Roy Lichtenstein Foundation