Roy Fox Lichtenstein was born in New York City, USA in 1923 to Jewish German immigrants. As a child he showed an early interest in art, science and music, and in 1936 he enrolled at Franklin School for Boys, New York. The school had no art teaching provision and the following year he attended watercolour classes at New York School of Fine and Applied Art where he began to paint still lifes. Meanwhile his musical interests developed through clarinet lessons and by visiting jazz clubs. In 1940 he attended painting classes at the Art Students League in New York, and enrolled as an undergraduate student at Ohio State University (OSU) in the College of Education.
Lichtenstein was inducted into military service in 1943 and while in service, he travelled to London and Paris where he saw works by artists such as Paul Cézanne and Toulouse-Lautrec. After the war he returned to the USA, and completed his degree. He joined the OSU School of Fine and Applied Arts as an instructor. In 1951 he had his first solo exhibition in New York at Carlebach Gallery and later that year moved to Cleveland, Ohio.
In 1957 Lichtenstein and his young family returned to New York where he became assistant professor at State University of New York, Oswego, teaching industrial design. During this period he began to make drawings of cartoon images such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, at first combining them in paintings with Abstract Expressionist brushwork. In 1960 he accepted an assistant professorship of art position at Douglass College, Rutgers, State University of New Jersey, where he got to know Allan Kaprow. Lichtenstein attended several ‘happenings’ organised by Kaprow, who inspired him to concentrate on his comic book images.
Lichtenstein made his first Pop Art painting, Look Mickey (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., USA), in 1961. That same year the influential art dealer Leo Castelli began to represent Lichtenstein and included one of his paintings in a group exhibition. He used a perforated metal screen for the first time in 1962 to make the Benday dots that he had previously painted by hand. The following year Lichtenstein was included in the important exhibition, Six Painters and the Object, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, curated by Lawrence Alloway alongside artists such as Andy Warhol, Jim Dine and Jasper Johns.
In 1966 Lichtenstein was one of five artists selected to represent the USA at the Venice Biennale and had his first solo exhibition at Cleveland Museum of Art. In 1967 he had his first European retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. The exhibition would later travel to three other museums including the Tate Gallery, which famously acquired the painting Whaam! 1963 in 1968. Lichtenstein began working on his first series of prints, Haystacks (see, for example, Haystacks #1 1969, Tate, London), and Rouen Cathedral, (both based on the work of Claude Monet) working with Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles. He had a retrospective exhibition in New York at the Guggenheim Museum in 1969, which included paintings and sculptures.
During the 1970s he continued to make prints and paintings in homage to major movements and figures in modern art. His print series from the early 1970s includes Entablatures (see, for example, Entablature V 1976, Tate, London), a series referencing neo-classical buildings. His painting series included Still Lifes, many of which made references to Cubist painters and specifically Pablo Picasso. He also made a film and created his first large-scale outdoor sculpture, Modern Head 1974, in Arcadia, California. In 1977 he began a series of paintings based on works by Surrealist artists, including Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí, and Surrealist works by Picasso.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York staged a drawing retrospective in 1987, the first drawings exhibition by a living artist to be held at the museum. The exhibition toured the USA and Europe. In 1988 he began to make the Reflections series of paintings in his studio in Southampton, New York, and later went on to work on a series of prints at the Tyler Graphics Inc. In the early 1990s Lichtenstein began his Interiors series and in 1996 he presented his Landscapes in Chinese style at the Castelli Gallery. He died unexpectedly in New York in 1997.
The Art Institute of Chicago and Tate presented Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, his first full-scale retrospective in over twenty years, in 2012-13.
In the late 1950s Roy Lichtenstein made a series of drawings based on iconic Disney characters including Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck. In the first of these drawings Lichtenstein used comic book style rendering amidst expressionistic surfaces. He later dropped the painterly interference and focused on the drawing. These small drawings were the beginning of Lichtenstein’s fascination with the graphic images infiltrating American society in the 1960s. Enlarging his comic book style images into oil paintings proved pivotal in the development of his career.
Lichtenstein later concentrated on more banal and anonymous sources such as small advertisements in newspapers, illustrated items in mail order catalogues, or romance and war comic book images, which he scaled up into large format oil paintings. Aesthetically, Lichtenstein admired the strong silhouettes and flattened designs of advertisements and comic books in the way the Cubists admired African art fifty years earlier. Conceptually, he drew attention to the ways they reflected modern American cultural identity – postwar everyday images presented an ideal way of living and comic book excerpts replicated the glamour and artifice of archetypal American society.
Lichtenstein experimented with a variety of painting techniques as a young artist. In the 1960s, he developed a series of processes for creating artworks that looked machine-made, but were in fact carefully designed and rendered by hand. In an interview with John Coplans for Artforum in 1967 Lichtenstein said, ‘I want to hide the record of my hand’ (quoted in Coplans 1970, p.8).
To create his designs Lichtenstein developed systems for imitating, but not copying, his graphic or cartoon sources. First he would sketch the image, making his own changes, then he would trace this drawing onto canvas using an opaque projector, while continuing to recompose the image. Finally he would paint this image using broad areas of flat Magna paint, strong contours and areas filled with Benday dots. This three-part process gave Lichtenstein boundaries within which to work, but enough freedom to take ownership over the final design.
In Drawing for Whaam! and Whaam! (both 1963) we see the strong relationship between the sketch, or study, and the final painting. Close inspection reveals the minor processes of refinement that Lichtenstein has carried out when translating his sketch onto a large canvas, in order to create an image with the most powerful visual impact. The final painting is one of Lichtenstein’s most well-known artworks and is part of a body of work based around the theme of war, produced between 1962 and 1964.
Lichtenstein first made use of his trademark Benday dots in 1961. They reinforced the printed nature of his source material and reminded viewers that they were once removed from the subject of the work, as he explained, ‘...the dots can have a purely decorative meaning, or they can mean an industrial way of extending the colour, or data information, or finally that the image is a fake’ (quoted in Bader 2009, p.36).
As well as producing paintings, Lichtenstein also created a number of limited edition prints from the 1960s onward, exploring technical innovations in lithography, screenprinting and woodcutting. He often combined multiple printing techniques in one image, or printed onto unconventional surfaces such as acetate or stainless steel. Wallpaper 1968 was even screenprinted onto fabric backed metallic foil. He worked with a range of master printmaking studios including Gemini G.E.L., Los Angeles; Tyler Graphics, Mount Kisco, New York and Donald Saff at Saff Tech Arts, Oxford, Maryland.
Throughout his career Lichtenstein made paintings based on masterpieces by the giants of modern art, including Paul Cézanne, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet. He drew on the long tradition of appropriation that exists in art history; as he pointed out, ‘Artists have often converted the work of other artists into their own style' (quoted in Bader 2009, p.61). Lichtenstein was also well aware that his own appreciation of these masterpieces came from printed reproductions rather than originals, hence the mechanical and pixelated quality in many of his copies.
Water Lilies with Cloud 1992 is one of six prints Lichtenstein made on stainless steel influenced by Claude Monet’s Nympheas paintings. Lichtenstein made his first works based on Monet’s paintings in 1969, with a set of prints based on both his Cathedral and Haystack series. He was interested in the paradox that surrounded Monet’s works, which were on the one hand highly subjective and intuitive, while on the other hand reliant in their repetition. He also shared Monet’s fascination with reflective surfaces, which he had explored through painting the surface of water. Yet Lichtenstein’s Monet reproductions remain distinctly mechanical, as he explains, ‘It’s an industrial way of making Impressionism – or something like it – by a machine like technique’ (quoted in Coplans 1972, p.102).
Like many young artists in the mid-1960s Lichtenstein offered an alternative to the ideas of pre and post war Modernism. His work demonstrates that the dialogue could be continued in a variety of ways. The fragmented pictorial language of Picasso’s Cubism also featured prominently in Lichtenstein’s paintings. Modern Art I 1996 is one of a series of Modern Art prints made in 1996, the year before the artist died. Lichtenstein explores the Cubist style, but his comic book imagery and Benday dots allow him to make the image his own. When talking about another similar painting made in 1963 titled Woman with Flowered Hat, he said, ‘What I am painting is a kind of Picasso done the way a cartoonist might do it… the Picasso is converted to my pseudo-cartoon style and takes on a character of its own’ (quoted in Bader 2009, p.61).
Despite the ironic quality in his Modern Art paintings, Lichtenstein’s own strong contours and flat shapes were inescapably indebted to Picasso, who Lichtenstein had respected throughout his career. One of the first exhibitions he saw as a young man was a Picasso retrospective – Picasso’s blue and rose periods subsequently influenced Lichtenstein’s early drawings. As an older artist, he often mimicked Picasso’s styles and even admitted, ‘I don’t think there is any question that Picasso is the greatest figure of the twentieth century…’ (quoted in Cowart 2007, p.92).
Lichtenstein was the son of middle-class parents during New York’s jazz age in the 1930s and the influence of this era on his creative output stayed with him throughout his career. During his high school years Lichtenstein visited jazz clubs around East 52nd Street, Staples on 57th Street and the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and even formed his own small band with friends, playing the flute, clarinet and piano. This early enthusiasm for music fed into his pre-Pop paintings of the 1930s, some of which depicted renditions of generic jazz musicians. Music remained a great love for Lichtenstein as his career developed and provided the subject for a number of his iconic comic book works, including Reverie 1965, in which one of his archetypal blondes appears to sing an emotional, heartfelt rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s famous 1930s jazz song Stardust.
In his later years Lichtenstein began playing the saxophone and claimed in an interview with Richard Cork for The Independent in 1997, ‘what I really want to do is music, but I won’t give up my day job!’ (quoted in Cork 1997, p.26) His paintings from this period explored the ways music could be translated into art through a variety of techniques.
In some, he experimented with surface pattern, using his signature Benday dots, flat shapes and bold contours to create symphonic patterns of colour and light across large surfaces, as can be seen in many of his late nudes, including the collage Interior with Painting of Nude (Study) 1997. He explained the ideas behind his artworks from this period to Michael Kimmelman in an article with The New York Times in 1995: ‘I’m trying to make paintings like giant musical chords, with a polyphony of colours that is nuts but works. Like [the pianist, Thelonious] Monk or Stravinsky’ (quoted in Enright 1994, p.27).
Other artworks took a more literal approach to the representation of music, as can be seen in his Composition screenprints dating from 1996 including Composition I, Composition II, and Composition III. These images respond to the freedom and improvisatory nature of jazz music by allowing the musical staves to curve and loop across the page in energetic waves, setting the notes free from their usual horizontal, linear constraints. These prints allowed Lichtenstein to pay homage to his lifelong passion for music and to explore a new approach to visual composition.
Lichtenstein explored the subject of the nude extensively, and made his first major nude painting, Artist Studio with Model in 1974. The work was influenced by Matisse’s paintings of odalisques and Moorish women from the 1920s, with the model positioned in a classical contrapposto pose. In the early 1990s he picked up the theme again, working on a large series of paintings and prints of nudes which he continued to work on, right up until his death in 1997. Given Lichtenstein’s interest in the work of other artists, it is not surprising to see him revisit one of the most dominant themes in art history. His nudes saw a return to the comic book imagery of the early 1960s, particularly paintings such as Girl with Ball 1961. Lichtenstein used many of the same cartoon clippings from his earlier career as a starting point for his nudes, featuring blonde, youthful women from sources such as DC Comics’ Girl’s Romances.
Lichtenstein also revealed a renewed interest in Picasso’s later work in the 1990s, which focused predominantly on the female nude. This interest may have been in response to two exhibitions in New York in this decade, the 1994 show, Picasso and the Weeping Women: Marie-Thérèse Walter and Dora Mar at the Metropolitan Museum and Picasso and Portraiture at the Museum of Modern Art in 1996. Lichtenstein may also have identified himself with the ageing Picasso, and indeed a number of older male artists, who used their later years to focus on the theme of the artist and his muse as a means of exploring aspects of their own identity.
Many of Lichtenstein’s nudes were situated in art-filled interiors, suggesting the decadence of the 1980s as documented in magazines such as Architectural Digest. His backdrops were idealised homes, with no clutter or signs of daily life. Often his own paintings and prints appeared on the walls, or his own versions of the work of other artists he admired. In the relief print, Nude with Yellow Pillow 1994, the painting in the background behind the model resembles one of his reproductions of Claude Monet’s waterlillies, such as Water Lillies with Japanese Bridge 1992. In another relief print, Roommates 1994, Lichtenstein’s version of a painting by the Dutch De Stijl artist Theo van Doesburg is just visible on the left.
Nudes were also used by Lichtenstein as a backdrop for creating more complex surface detail, as can be seen in two of his screen printed works, Nude Reading 1994 and Two Nudes 1994. Both are part of a series of nine which demonstrate a more experimental use of Benday dots. To produce these screenprints the artist used hand cut stencils with small irregularities, echoing the less uniform nature of his early work.
He also experimented with ways the dots could produce tone, as he explains, ‘It started out as my idea of mixing chiaroscuro – done with dots and shading – with flat areas of color, which is a complete inconsistency’ (quoted in Enright 1994, p.27). While the Benday dots do create areas of light and shadow, instead of simply following the surface of the female form they are suggestive of waves of light shimmering across the whole picture surface. It is as if we are observing these women through a lens, reflection or pane of glass, thus emphasising the voyeuristic role of the viewer, who observes women in quiet, intimate scenes. In Two Nudes the voyeuristic content is further emphasised by the open window in the background, a recognised symbol for sexual availability. Like many of his late nude works these prints are large in scale – many of his paintings took on cinematic proportions – forcing viewers to see a complex screen of surface pattern before taking in the whole scene.
Lichtenstein was fascinated by reflections and experimented with the ways they could be represented in his paintings and prints from the mid-1960s onwards. One of his earliest examples is the oil painting In the Car 1963, which used reflections on glass as a key component in the composition. They act as a way of creating both distance and connection between the viewer and the subject, of describing speed and movement in the car and represent the psychological relationship between the protagonists, captured in a fleeting moment. The mirror also enabled him to abstract his subject. Lichtenstein also used a mirror while working in his studio as a visual device for detecting any imperfections or flaws in his paintings, picking up on a traditional Renaissance technique.
Between 1969 and 1972 he went one step further, creating close to fifty paintings based on reproductions of mirrors he found in a brochure, such as Mirror No. 1 1969 and Mirror in Six Panels No. 1 1970. He was fascinated by the parallels that could be found between the mirror image and the printed image: both created a distanced version of reality which was one step away from first-hand experience. Similarly, Lichtenstein’s mirrors had a cold, steely quality which was in line with his desire to be as emotionless and mechanical as possible. Lichtenstein came as close to minimalist abstraction as he would in these paintings, but without completely losing a figurative reference, as he explained: ‘Of course the reflections are just an excuse to make an abstract work...’ (quoted in Bader 2009, p.69).
Between 1988 and 1993 Lichtenstein worked on a large body of paintings, prints and drawings prefixed with the words ‘reflections’. Reflections: Art 1988, is a reworking of his painting Art, originally made in 1962 which simply used the word as a motif. In the more recent painting the word has been partially obscured by bands of white containing Benday dots, as if seen behind a pane of glass. The title invites multiple interpretations – on the one hand the reflections in the work could be taken literally, but they could also be read as contemplations on the meaning of ‘art’.
The obscured images he worked on in his Reflections phase were often appropriated from his own past paintings, or new comic book sources. This series could be read as a wry reference to the Pop artists who quoted and re-used everyday images, and even an acknowledgement that his own work had now become part of popular culture. The ambiguous quality of the word reflections was also of interest to Lichtenstein and could be understood as references to physical reflections in glass or mirror, or to cognitive reflections in the artist’s mind as he revisited his paintings from the past.
Lichtenstein discovered the power of text in visual art in the early 1960s, when he began reproducing comic strip frames into large format oil paintings. He was drawn to the combinations in comic books between verbal and visual language which had rarely been explored by visual artists before the Pop Art era; for Lichtenstein text and image together broke down well established boundaries between high and low art forms.
Some of Lichtenstein’s earliest comic book style paintings used balloon text to communicate wry or covert messages, such as Mr. Bellamy 1961. The title made reference to Dick Bellamy, a well-known talent spotter in the New York gallery scene. Lichtenstein’s young officer in the painting thinks to himself, ‘I am supposed to report to a Mr. Bellamy. I wonder what he’s like.’ It is as if the painting’s hero is one of an army of young artists who hope to be recruited by Mr. Bellamy.
In artworks such as We Rose up Slowly 1964 a split panel composition between text and image is explored to create a shared narrative between two characters. The image reveals two young lovers who are fully absorbed in a romantic, underwater embrace and the full caption reads, ‘We rose up slowly…as if we didn’t belong to the outside world any longer… Like swimmers in a shadowy dream… who didn’t need to breathe…’.
Lichtenstein also used text to describe scenes which extend beyond the edges of the painting. Many of his angstridden or love-struck female characters make reference to characters beyond the frame, through thought or speech bubbles, such as Drowning Girl 1963, who thinks to herself, ‘I don’t care! I’d rather sink than call Brad for help!’ and in the painting, I Can See the Whole Room...and There’s Nobody in It! 1961, Lichtenstein’s male character pushes back the cover of a round peep hole and looks through, as if observing the room the viewer is standing in.
The abbreviated symbols that illustrators used for sensations like touch or sound, or even abstract elements such as excitement became a particular source of fascination for Lichtenstein. Imagery from war comic books provided him with ample source material, containing words such as whaam, blam, varoom, voomp and bratatat. In the painting Takka Takka 1962 the title words themselves imitate the sound of a rapidfire weapon, but Lichtenstein was also able to use form and colour to add to the brutality of the sound. In Reflection on Crash 1990 the dramatic sound is exaggerated by jagged yellow and red outlines suggesting fire or an explosion, with a man’s tense face just visible on the lower left.
Lichtenstein had an astute awareness of colour balance and composition, backed up by a rigorous understanding of art history. He used his work to question the Modernist assumption that art should reflect reality, focussing instead on the pictorial arrangement of colours and forms. He said, ‘I’m never drawing the object itself. I’m only drawing a depiction of the object – a kind of crystalised symbol of it’ (quoted in Cowart 2007, p.119).
In the early 1960s, Lichtenstein’s first Pop Art paintings focussed solely on the three primary colours plus black. The influence of Dutch De Stijl artists from the early 20th century such as Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg can be seen in these works, who similarly pared their paintings down to the basics of primary colours plus black and white. The addition of Benday dots allowed Lichtenstein to intensify his designs with areas of light and shade, creating the subtle suggestion of form.
As Lichtenstein’s work progressed he developed a more sophisticated approach to colour, which reached a peak towards the end of his career. In Lichtenstein’s nude works from the 1990s we see a broader spectrum including flesh tints and deep primary greens as influenced by Picasso and Matisse and in his late landscapes inspired by Chinese landscapes from the Song dynasty (960-1279) we see more subtle blue and brown hues. Lichtenstein also explored more complex arrangements of dots in his later paintings and prints, with some images featuring as many as 15 different sizes, in a range of subtle tones and colours.
Lichtenstein also applied strict compositional principles to his artworks throughout his career. In his early Pop paintings his process of enlarging and unifying printed subjects relied on an awareness of formal balance and design, where the composition would be adjusted several times before being translated into a final work. Lichtenstein’s studio was set up in such a way that his focus could be on the investigation of composition, with a variety of practical devices such as a self-designed rotating easel to aid this process. Like his contemporary Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein employed a number of studio assistants from the late 1960s onwards to assist in the production of his work. The painter and writer Carlene Meeker worked as one of his studio assistants between 1968 and 1980. She said, ‘Roy had already designed the easels so that they were all attached to the wall… at any given moment he could be working on anywhere between fifteen and twenty paintings …. Then he had his own separate easel, which turned, and there could be a painting on that. Then he had a moveable wall, which he designed … We’d pull this wall out, and we could work on both sides…’ (Meeker quoted in Cowart 2007, p.121).
In Lichtenstein’s later works pattern, shape and colour became of increasing importance, so that some works would reach a point of near abstraction. Reflections on Conversation 1990 is one of seven Reflections prints produced at Tyler Graphics in Mount Kisco, New York during 1989 and 1990. In this series he revisited his own past designs, obscuring the original image by overlaying them with the illusion of a reflective surface through semi-abstract blocks of colour and pattern. This complex print combines lithography, screenprint and relief with collage and embossing and contains 13 different colours. The final image is composed of carefully constructed shapes, patterns and colours that render the original pictorial content almost unrecognisable.
Paul Cummings, ‘Oral History interview with Ivan C. Karp, 1969, Mar. 12’, Washington, D.C. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution: http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-ivan-c-karp-11717#transcript, accessed 24 February 2015.
John Coplans, Roy Lichtenstein: Graphics, Reliefs and Sculptures, 1969–1970, exhibition catalogue, Irvine: University of California, Irvine; Los Angeles: Gemini G.E.L. 1970.
John Coplans (ed.), Roy Lichtenstein, New York 1972.
Robert Enright, ‘Pop Goes the Tradition: An Interview with Roy Lichtenstein’, Border Crossings (Ontario) vol.13, no.3, August 1994.
Richard Cork, ‘Roy Lichtenstein: The Last Interview’, The Times (Metro section), 4-10 October 1997.
Jack Cowart, Roy Lichtenstein: Beginning to End, exhibition catalogue, Fundacion Juan, Madrid 2007.
Graham Bader (ed.), Roy Lichtenstein: October Files 7, Cambridge, Mass. 2009.