Born in Manhattan in 1923, Roy Lichtenstein was a leading figure of the Pop Art movement. His distinctive artistic style is inspired by the visual language of consumerism, advertising and comic books that pervaded American popular culture in the post-war era, and remains powerfully relevant today.
After studying in New York under American painter Reginald Marsh, Lichtenstein briefly served in 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 in New York, and over the following years he continued to establish his practice, experimenting both conceptually and technically. As he spent more and more time working and teaching in the city, Lichtenstein began to develop new ideas in response to the leading art movement of the time, Abstract Expressionism, however he soon moved away from this aesthetic by incorporating well-known cartoon characters, such as Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse, into his work.
Lichtenstein rose to prominence in the early 1960s as an important member of the emerging Pop Art movement, alongside Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Claes Oldenburg. He had his first exhibition with the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1961 and soon began to enjoy critical acclaim not just in the United States but worldwide. He settled permanently in New York and became a regular fixture on the scene, eventually resigning from his teaching job at Rutgers University in 1964 to concentrate his efforts on making art full time.
This period of Lichtenstein’s life 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 for subsequent generations of artists. Over the course of his career Lichtenstein built up a rich œuvre of over 5,000 works that incorporated and experimented with pop culture themes in a range of different media. These include paintings, prints and editions and even three-dimensional sculptures in painted bronze and ceramic, which have now been exhibited in more than 240 galleries around the world. His work is housed in many prestigious institutions and collections including 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.
Style & Techniques
Throughout his work Lichtenstein borrowed artistic techniques from the commercial printing industry, most notably the Ben-Day dot which was used to reproduce images in newspapers. This method married the ‘high’ art of painting with the ‘low’ art of contemporary media and consumer culture to striking effect, as the artist meticulously imitated industrial mass production methods by hand.
Lichtenstein also made work that was heavily influenced by comic strips, parodying the typical lettering and speech balloons of the genre – all of which would become signatures of his style – as well as the themes of the storylines. He was fascinated by “the startling quality of the visual shorthand and the sense of cliché” that they offered, which allowed him to subtly alter the commonplace imagery in his artistic practice and lend a cultural resonance to his work. As well as narrative works, Lichtenstein applied this aesthetic to still lifes, interiors and landscapes along with more traditional portraits and abstract compositions.
While some of his most widely recognised and acclaimed work adapted the graphic style and block colours of pre-existing comic book designs, Lichtenstein was not just a simple copyist. "I am nominally copying,” he said, “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 popular aesthetic and incorporating it into his own designs, his work spoke to a large audience outside the art world elite, and still resonates with many today.
Lichtenstein’s Most Famous Works
Some of Lichtenstein’s 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. Underscored with parody and irony, they transform mainstream motifs and clichés into works of art, elevating seemingly trivial subjects into meaningful social commentary, blurring the distinction between so-called high art and popular culture in much the same way as contemporary artists such as KAWS or Takashi Murakami today.
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, speaking to universal themes that range from heartbreak to consumerism to gender politics.
Lichtenstein died in September 1997 in New York. He remains a household name whose sought after work is testament to the accessibility and universality of the Pop Art movement.
On the Market
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 work has sustained a consistent level of popularity both during and after his lifetime, and the range of his print portfolio, encompassing signed limited edition screen prints and lithographs, makes it accessible to a large audience of collectors.