Getting to Know Roy Lichtenstein

“Pop Art looks out into the world. It doesn’t look like a painting of something, it looks like the thing itself.“ – Roy Lictenstein 

Roy Fox Lichtenstein was born in Manhattan New York in 1923 to an upper-middle-class Jewish family. Lichtenstein had always been interested in art as a child, taking watercolour classes and drawing the musicians he would go and see at The Apollo Theatre in Harlem. In 1939, in his last year in school, he enrolled in the Art Students League of New York. Lichtenstein then left New York in order to pursue art at Ohio State University – which offered studio courses and degree in fine arts – his studies were interrupted for three years during World War II, but when he returned he completed his studies, enrolled in a graduate programme, and by 1949 Lichtenstein had received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Ohio State University.

In 1951, Lichtenstein held his first solo exhibition at the Carlebach Gallery in New York and by 1995, he had been awarded the National Medal of Arts. Today, Lichtenstein is symbolic of the American Pop Art movement, considered one of the greatest artist of the 20th century, and is one of the most expensive artists of all time.

Style

Lichtenstein is now famous for his comic-strip style, drawings depicted often in primary colours, with thick black outlines and the Ben-Day dots typical of comic strips of the time; and along with Andy Warhol he is the world’s most notorious Pop Artist. His dark humour parodied with the highly commercialized appearance of his work, such as Drowning Girl (1963) and M-Maybe (1965).

However, his origins are in abstract expressionism (reacting to Jackson Pollock’s and Willem de Kooning’s success. See: Big Painting No.6) and cubism – Picasso would have a profound influence on him, and he spent years trying to rid himself of that influence; but, as he said, “I don’t think that I’m over his influence but they probably don’t look like Picassos; Picasso himself would probably have thrown up looking at my pictures.”

During the 1950s, Lichtenstein first began employing  his comic-strip style in his images – which we’ll return to shortly. Later in his career (from the early 1960s to early 1990s) he began creating work that referred to other 20th century masters, such as Henri Matisse, Salvador Dali, and, of his most famous and expensive paintings is a recreation of Picasso’s Dora Maar au Chat – which Lichtenstein titled, Woman with Flowered Hat. Lichtenstein said, “Picasso’s always been such a huge influence that I thought when I started the cartoon paintings that I was getting away from Picasso, and even my cartoons of Picasso were done almost to rid myself of his influence. He also famously recreated Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles.

During the 1970s Lichtenstein’s style transgressed a little again, as he experimented with works influenced by German Expressionists such as Otto Dix. By 1972, Lichtenstein was creating his version of still lifes, as well as sculptures and prints.

Mickey Mouse

Lichtenstein had shown a keen interest in comic books and cartoons while teaching at Rutgers University, influenced by his fellow teacher Allan Kaprow. But his first work to feature his now stereotypical hard-edged figures and Ben-Day dots was inspired by one of his sons, who pointed at a Mickey Mouse comic-strip and said “I bet you can’t paint as good as that, eh, Dad?. What Lichtenstein created was Look Mickey!, and in the same year (1961) he created six other works with recognizable characters. It was also in this year when Leo Castelli would exhibit Lichtenstein’s works at his New York Gallery; and soon, Lichtenstein would have to take a leave of absence at his position at Rutgers University to focus solely on his art.

WHAM!

One of Lichtenstein’s most famous paintings is WHAM!, often hailed as Pop Art’s most iconic work and is one of many in which Lichtenstein portrays aerial combat through the medium of comic strip; and the history of this painting is almost as fascinating as the painting itself.

During his three years in the United States army (between 1943 and 1946) he was sent to pilot training but the program was cancelled, instead Lichtenstein trained under an officer called Irv Novick, who was, coincidentally, also a comic book illustrator. Novick spotted Lichtenstein’s talent and had him transferred from latrine-mopping duty to designing signs and posters instead. Years later, heavily inspired by Novick’s work – as the drawings are almost identical, Lichtenstein turned Novick’s comic-strip illustration of aerial combat into the masterpiece known and loved today.

Commissions

Lichtenstein received numerous commissions during his long career, on of his most notable being in 1969, when he was commissioned by Gunter Sachs to create Composition and Leda and the Swan, for the collector’s Pop Art bedroom suite at the Palace Hotel in St. Moritz.

He was commissioned by BMW in 1977 to paint a Group 5 Racing Version of the BMW 320i as part of the BMW Art Car Project. Also in the late 1970s and during the 1980s, Lichtenstein garnered major commissions for works in public places; such as the five-story high Mural with Blue Brushstroke (1984–85) at the Equitable Center, New York; and El Cap de Barcelona (1992) in Barcelona. In 1994, three years before his death from complications with pneumonia, Lichtenstein created the 53-foot-long, enamel-on-metal Times Square Mural that now hovers over pedestrians in the Times Square subway station.

Most Expensive Paintings

Lichtenstein’s most expensive painting – and one of the most epxensive paintings of all time is Nurse (1964) which sold for $95.4 million; the painting was inspired by an image from a comic book dating from the 1960s.

After Nurse, is the aforementioned Woman with Flowered Hat (1963), which sold for $56,123,750 at Christie’s in New York in 2013. Followed by Sleeping Girl (1964) which has none of Lichtenstein’s famous comic-strip speech bubbles and instead just depicts a sleeping femme-fatal – complete with Ben-Day dots; and I Can See the Whole Room!…and Theres Nobody in it! (1961), which sold for $43.202.500 at Christie’s New York.