Born in Manhattan in 1923, Roy Lichtenstein was a leading figure in the Pop Art movement during the second half of the 20th century. His distinctive artistic style is inspired by the visual language of consumerism and advertising that pervaded American popular culture at the time, and his work recalls a society of widespread commercialism that has remained powerfully relevant to this day.
Having studied in New York City under American painter Reginald Marsh, Lichtenstein briefly served for the US army during World War II, before going on to study and subsequently teach at Ohio State University. In 1951 the artist had his first solo exhibition at the Carlebach Gallery back in New York, and over the following years he continued to experiment with and establish his own artistic ideas, both conceptually and technically. Spending most of his time working and teaching in New York, Lichtenstein started toying with and developing new ideas in response to the prevailing movement of Abstract Expressionism at the time. He experimented by incorporating well-known cartoon characters such as Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse into his work.
It was at the beginning of the 1960s that he rose to prominence, becoming an important and pioneering member of the emerging Pop Art movement, alongside the likes of Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Claes Oldenburg. In 1961 his work was first shown at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, and his career began to acquire critical acclaim and attention not just in the United States but worldwide. Settling permanently in New York, he was working at the apex of the new art movement and his name has since become synonymous with the international rise of Pop Art. In 1964 he resigned from his teaching position at Rutgers University to concentrate his efforts full-time on successfully forging his name in the vibrant art scene in the city.
Lichtenstein borrowed artistic techniques from the commercial printing industry in his work, for example his appropriation of the Ben-Day dots, a technique derived from the images reproduced in newspaper print. This offers a distinctive and culturally relevant aesthetic that evokes the artist’s contemporary consumer culture of mass production and advertising, meticulously mimicking the industrial process in his own hand. He also produced images that were influenced by comic strips, parodying the typical lettering and speech balloons, all of which would become signatures of his artwork. He was fascinated by “the startling quality of the visual shorthand and the sense of cliche” that they offered, cleverly altering the commonplace imagery in his artistic practise and imbuing his works with a profound cultural significance.
Some of his most widely recognised and acclaimed work simultaneously recalled and adapted the graphic style and block colours of pre-existing comic book designs, with delineated black outlines of the narrative stills that characterised them. Far from being a simple copyist, Lichtenstein was sophisticated in his adaptation of the visual language of popular culture. In his own words, "I am nominally copying, but I am really restating the copied thing in other terms. In doing that, the original acquires a totally different texture. It isn't thick or thin brushstrokes, it's dots and flat colours and unyielding lines." By taking such a pervasive aesthetic and incorporating it into his own designs, his work spoke to a large audience that to this day can appreciate and engage with his images.
Some of his most iconic works include Whaam!, Hopeless, and Drowning Girl, all of which were executed in 1963 and are rendered in his bright, bold colour palette and with underlying parody. They transform cliché into works of art. An ironic or satirical take on popular fiction which unites his artistic aims,and elevates seemingly trivial subjects into meaningful social commentary, blurring the distinction between high art and visual culture in much the same way that key artists such as KAWS or Takashi Murakami continue to do so today.
This prosperous period of Lichtenstein’s career would go on not only to cement his name at the forefront of the American Pop Art movement but also to shape the history of modern art, his ideas paving the way and inspiring subsequent generations of future artists. Throughout the rest of his prolific career, Lichtenstein continued to build up a rich œuvre consisting of over 5,000 works that incorporated and experimented with pop culture themes in a variety of different media. These included paintings, prints and editions and even three-dimensional sculptures in painted bronze and ceramic, which are now exhibited in more than 240 solo exhibitions in galleries around the world. His work is housed in many prestigious institutions and collections across the globe, from the Tate Modern in London, the Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Lichtenstein maintained that “Pop Art looks out into the world. It doesn't look like a painting of something, it looks like the thing itself.” His work was not only a satirical mirror to the society in which he worked, but also remains decidedly relevant today, where we live in a society still governed by themes of commercialisation and appearance, and speaks to universal themes from human emotion to gender politics. At the pinnacle of his career in the 60s and 70s he significantly contributed to the thriving contemporary art market, and his work continues to remain high in demand in the present.
Lichtenstein died in September 1997 in New York. Today he remains a household name whose desirable work is a monument to the Pop Art Movement, as well as continuing to resonate with themes still very much prevalent in society today.
In January 2017, Lichtenstein’s Masterpiece (1962) sold for an incredible $165 million, making the piece one of the 15 highest valued artworks ever. His timeless work has sustained a consistent level of popularity both during and after his lifetime, and the full spectrum of work in his œuvre, from large-scale paintings to limited edition prints, makes it accessible to a range of collectors.