By the time he died in 1977, Roy Lichtenstein had produced over 350 print editions. As well as standing as testament to the artist’s talent and dedication, this prolific output reflects the popularity and development of print as a medium during the second half of the 20th century, helped not in small part by the rise of Pop Art and its fascination with the potential of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.
Unlike the movements that came before them, Pop artists were drawn to that which could be made by machine, including commercial art and packaging, and prints offered the perfect medium in which to mimic this industrial process in order to produce fine art. Though Lichtenstein’s dealer Leo Castelli had encouraged the production of limited edition lithograph posters that could be used to promote exhibitions, it was Italian dealer Arturo Schwarz who first published a fine art print by Roy Lichtenstein, an etching of a light switch entitled On, in 1962.
Soon, artist, entrepreneur and technician came together to create a renaissance for printmaking and to challenge its traditions and techniques, undeterred by the traditional boundaries between mediums and styles. This moment saw commercial printing techniques enter the artist’s atelier; painters such as Rauschenberg, Warhol and Lichtenstein were now using silkscreen, stencil and billboard techniques in the creation of fine art.
Though the 1960s saw a renewed interest in printmaking, the medium had a long history in American art with artists such as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood producing etchings and engravings at Stanley William Hayter’s famous Atelier 17, which was also home to the Surrealist émigrés during the Second World War as well as leading Abstract Expressionists Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
Lichtenstein first began experimenting with print during his MFA at The Ohio State University but it was his paintings of comic strips that first made his name as a pioneer of the Pop Art movement in 1961. It wasn’t until 1967, when he produced his first solo portfolio of prints, Ten Landscapes published by Esman, that he pursued the medium seriously. Intrigued by the potential for prints to act as series rather than single images, he went on to produce his ‘Manufactured Monets’ at publishing house and lithography studio Gemini Graphic Editions Limited who were famous for working with such greats as Josef Albers and Man Ray as well as younger artists. He would collaborate with them for a long time, playing an instrumental part in the expansion of their workshop to include etching, woodcut and screen printing. These new resources and expertise allowed Lichtenstein to focus on his interest in the optics of colour and to improve his technical precision. This is particularly notable in his Cathedral and Haystack series where each sheet is identical to the one before, with only the colour changing. This is due to the transferal of the image to the lithography plate using photography, a complete subversion of the Impressionist master’s technique of painting en plein air.
Lichtenstein’s attraction to print as a medium of multiples was undeniable; he once said that ‘I feel I sort of reset myself when I’m going to do a print. It’s a different activity from the painting. Part of it is the proofing, that you can try different colours in exactly the same place. … I guess I like the activity of deciding to do a group of prints. I don’t particularly like the activity of doing one print. It interrupts my focus.’ This fascination was given free reign with the opening of Tyler Graphics by Gemini cofounder Kenneth Tyler in 1974 in New York. With state of the art equipment and expert technicians Tyler was able to offer Lichtenstein and other leading artists the opportunity to produce complex prints on a large scale. In 1976 Lichtenstein published his Entablature series which saw him reach beyond his usually limited colour palette and preferred mediums of screen printing and lithography to experiment with colour, process and materials in new ways. Rather than beginning with a sketch for a print, for example, with this series Lichtenstein would work from a collage and instead of just two colours, he would choose as many as seventeen colours as well as adding metallic and embossed details.
Another famous work in print by Lichtenstein is the Brushstroke Faces series produced with Donald J Staff of the Graphicstudio workshop at the University of South Florida and later Saff Tech Arts in Maryland. This group of ten prints, made in 1989, combined his signature Benday dots with light washes and bold brushstrokes to make striking figures. Demonstrating his mastery of printmaking, these works combine screen printing, lithography, woodcut and wax type, a new process developed by Saff’s studio.
Speaking of his journey through printmaking, Lichtenstein said, “In the beginning I wanted my prints to be very simple and mechanical … The paintings, in spite of me, have a very handmade look, but in the prints, you can achieve that sense of perfection.” Later, he explained, he wanted to reintroduce the element of imperfection: “I’ve come to want the prints to be less about precision. That’s why I went to woodcuts, where there was material to fight against, something that would keep me from making things ‘perfect’.” And so what began as Lichtenstein’s interest in the multiplicity of the artwork soon became a fascination with form and experimentation which resulted in ever more complex and accomplished works.