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 fully achieved paintings were based on imagery lifted from comic strips and advertisements and 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, the first of two children born to Milton and Beatrice Werner Lichtenstein.
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 Lichtenstein 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. The artist also ventured beyond comic book subjects, essaying paintings based on oils by Cézanne, Mondrian and Picasso, as well as still life and landscapes.
Lichtenstein became a prolific print maker and 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. Participating in one such project—the American Supermarket show in 1964 at the Paul Bianchini Gallery, for which he designed a shopping bag. The late 1960s also saw Lichtenstein’s first museum surveys: in 1967 the Pasadena Art Museum initiated a traveling retrospective, in 1968 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 late 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.
The search for new forms and sources was even more emphatic after 1970. During the 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 because viewers have accepted so many visual conceptions that they don’t analyze what they see. In the Mirror series, he dealt with light and shadow upon glass, and in the Entablature series, he considered the same phenomena by abstracting such Beaux-Art architectural elements as cornices, dentils, capitals and columns. Another entire panoply of works produced during the 1970s were 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. He was not merely isolating found images, but juxtaposing, overlapping, fragmenting and recomposing them. In the words of art historian Jack Cowart, Lichtenstein’s virtuosic compositions were “a rich dialogue of forms—all intuitively modified and released from their nominal sources.”
The Interiors, mural-sized canvases inspired by a miniscule advertisement in an Italian telephone book, delve again into the perceptual ambiguities of reflections from windows and mirrors. The Nudes reprise the theme of women in a romance-comic mode, which Lichtenstein had introduced in the 1960s and amplified in lush Surrealist-inspired beach scenes in the 1970s. As with the Interiors, there is ample quotation of elements from earlier canvases, the furniture of Lichtenstein’s painted world. He also used the series to investigate mixing chiaroscuro (which he devised with dots and shading) with flat areas of color. This effect was brought to an ultimate pitch in his Chinese Landscapes, Lichtenstein’s final encounter with a monumental art tradition—and one of his most subtle. Configurations of land, water, mountains and air found in Song dynasty paintings and scrolls are simulated by softly drifting fields of graduated dots. None of Lichtenstein’s usual black outlines define the monochromatic forms, which heightens the contemplative and abstract quality of the series.
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.