Roy Lichtenstein was one of the front rank of Pop Artists working in the United States in the early 1960s, and as such had a lasting impact on the entire development of art during the 20th century, an effect that is still felt to this day. His ability to fuse painting with the visual language of advertising and comic strips created a dialogue that at the time was seen as both fun and scandalous, yet which also had profound roots in the entire nature of perception.
This important aspect of Lichtenstein’s work derived in part from his studies at Ohio State University, where he was taught by Hoyt L. Sherman. In his lectures, Sherman would carry out experiments which demonstrated the peculiar properties of vision, visual memory and visual interpretation. Of these teachings, Lichtenstein would later explain: ‘Organised perception is what art is all about… He taught me how to go about learning to look’ (Lichtenstein, quoted in D. Waldman, Roy Lichtenstein, exh. cat., New York, 1993, p. 7).
Lichtenstein’s studies were interrupted by military service during the Second World War, but he returned to Ohio State in 1946, completing his studies and then staying on to qualify as a Master of Fine Arts in 1949. During the 1950s, he worked in a number of styles, often reacting to the dominance of Abstract Expressionism at the time. This came to the fore towards the end of the 1950s, when he created pictures that parodied Abstract Expressionism in their appearance while containing visible elements taken from cartoons.
Lichtenstein had been introduced to some of the New York avant garde in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was also at this point that he first reversed the formula seen in his faux-Ab Ex works. Instead, he created the 1961 work Look Mickey! in which a cartoon was more directly appropriated by Lichtenstein and rendered, on a larger scale, on canvas; that picture is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. This was the first picture in which Lichtenstein explored the short-hand devices used in mass printing, especially colour printing, in his paintings, as was demonstrated in the fields of unmodulated colour and in the use of Ben-Day dots in order to achieve the pink within part of Mickey Mouse’s face. These would come to be his arsenal.
Lichtenstein was almost immediately signed by Leo Castelli, and had his first show with the legendary gallerist the following year. Lichtenstein’s signing with Castelli was to prove fateful for another artist: Andy Warhol had been creating his own paintings based on comic strips, each artist working separately and in isolation from the other, and on discovering this, changed tack, launching another chapter in the history of Pop Art.
Over the coming years, Lichtenstein would tackle a number of subjects using his print-like techniques, by which he painstakingly reproduced print effects by hand, continuing to paint yet working in a way that was strictly controlled by his subject matter and visual language, working in opposition to the flinging gusto of the Action Painters. Lichtenstein levelled his target at commercial art, at comic strips, and also at the canon of Western art, creating his own ‘plain-pipe racks Picasso’ and versions of the Impressionist paintings of Monet. In this way, he explored the cult of the brushstroke and the artist’s touch, which had risen with Modernism and reached new extremes with Abstract Expressionism. He explored the absurdity of these concepts through works such as his now-iconic Brushstroke pictures, revealing the continued fascination with intellectual investigation initially set into motion by Hoyt L. Sherman. As Lichtenstein himself explained, ‘All my art is in some way about other art, even if the other art is cartoons’ (Lichtenstein, quoted in J. Hendrickson, Roy Lichtenstein, Cologne, 2000, frontispiece).
Lichtenstein constantly managed to find new routes of enquiry in his print-like paintings, even entering into the world of prints and multiples with works that often undermined the mechanical processes upon which they relied. He was a constant innovator, able to bring his sights to bear on movements such as Cubism and Surrealism or classical Chinese landscape painting, as well as comic strips themselves.
11 February – 25 April 2020