Roy Fox Lichtenstein († September 29, 1997 ibid.) was an American teacher and painter of Pop Art. Along with Andy Warhol, he was probably the best-known representative of this art movement. His breakthrough came in 1961 with the painting Look Mickey (Eng: Look at Mickey), his style became the industrial style of printed comics. In his later works, however, Lichtenstein returned to his expressionist and surreal roots. In 1995 he was awarded the Kyoto Prize, one of the highest honors for services to science and art.
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Roy Lichtenstein was born into a middle-class Jewish New York family in 1923. His father was a real estate agent. Roy attended a private school whose curriculum did not include art classes. As a teenager, he began to paint and draw. He had an interest in jazz and used jazz musicians with their instruments as models for portraits in the style of Ben Shahn. He met his models at concerts in Harlem and in jazz clubs on 52nd Street.
In the summer of 1939, he attended Art Students League classes with Reginald Marsh (1898-1954). Lichtenstein drew models and New York city scenes such as Coney Island, street fairs and boxing matches. Marsh himself was among the painters devoted to national art and painting. He painted motifs of everyday life, concentrating on tangible subjects; he rejected abstractions such as those contained in Cubism or European Futurism. Lichtenstein”s motifs were also based on this, although his declared model at this time was already Pablo Picasso, whose blue and pink periods strongly influenced Lichtenstein”s early works.
In 1940, Lichtenstein finished high school and, due to a lack of opportunities in New York, enrolled at Ohio State University in the School of Fine Arts. He himself wanted to become an artist, but was persuaded by his parents to pursue a teaching degree at the Academy of Art. The greatest influence on him was Professor Hoyt L. Sherman (1903-1981), and Lichtenstein painted models and still lifes in the Expressionist style. From 1943 to 1945 he interrupted his studies and served in the military, being deployed in Europe. During this time he made nature drawings with ink, pencil and chalk. After the war, he took courses in French and history at the Cité Universitaire in Paris, but returned to America after only a month and a half to visit his ailing father.
Sherman used a method in his courses that became known as the “flash room.” In it, he darkened the room and briefly projected images onto up to three screens that became more complex as the semester progressed; later, he hung real objects from the ceiling that were also briefly illuminated. Students had to put down on paper what they saw in the dark based on the mental afterimage. These courses left a formative impression on Lichtenstein. In his later works, Lichtenstein repeatedly attempted to combine the flatness of the image with the presence of the multidimensional object.In June 1946, he graduated from Ohio State University. He then began the Master of Fine Arts degree program and took a teaching position that lasted until 1951. During this period, he drew inspiration from the Cubists for his semi-abstract paintings.
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Early and largely unsuccessful artist years
In 1950, he graduated with a master”s degree and lost his lectureship the following year due to a slump in the large number of students funded by the state through the G.I. Bill. As early as 1949, Roy Lichtenstein married Isabel Wilson. The couple had two sons, David Hoyt (b. 1954) and Mitchell Wilson (b. 1956), who is an actor and director. Lichtenstein moved to Cleveland in 1951, where his wife had a job, and worked as a graphic and technical draftsman and as a designer of tin cans. His first solo exhibitions 19491950 were held at Ten-Thirty Gallery, Cleveland and Carlebach Gallery, New York. In 1965 he divorced from his marriage to Isabel Wilson.
Between 1952 and 1955, Lichtenstein focused on typically American subjects, exploring expressionism, abstraction, and painted wooden constructions. His artistic work represented an irritating alienation of typical American paintings (such as Western motifs by Frederic Remington and Charles Willson Peale) in a Cubist way. This created a kind of distanced historical painting that contained an admiration for the chosen motifs, but at the same time distanced itself from them through the painting technique. Lichtenstein also used similar motifs for sculptures in wood and metal at this time. Until 1957, three more exhibitions were held at the John Heller Gallery, New York; however, despite the presentation of his works, Lichtenstein was only able to sell a few. In order to be able to earn a living, he resumed his teaching activities in 1957. He received a position as assistant professor of art at New State University, Oswego, where he taught for the next three years.
The first signs of Pop Art could be seen in humorous lithographs in 1956, although at that time he was still painting mainly Expressionist pictures. In 1957, for example, he created the painting Ten Dollar Bill, which depicted a highly abstracted ten-dollar bill. Lichtenstein”s concentration on Expressionism, which was very popular in the U.S. at the time, is often interpreted as an attempt to jump into the mainstream and thus become commercially successful. Two directions of Expressionism prevailed, between which Lichtenstein oscillated, on the one hand “Action Painting”, primarily represented by Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and on the other hand introverted Expressionism, represented for example by Barnett Newman and Robert Motherwell. Newman became known for his large and pure color surfaces, which were intended to encourage the viewer to engage meditatively with the painting.
Roy Lichtenstein began experimenting with this style in 1957 and exhibited his works again in New York in 1959, but without attracting much attention. Probably due to a lack of conviction for this style, he eventually began to occasionally paint comic book characters such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny and other Disney characters. He himself described this as a pure desperate move, because in his view, between Milton Resnick and Mike Goldberg, there were simply no niches left. His first Disney pictures were never shown publicly and to a large extent were painted over again by Lichtenstein himself.
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Look Mickey, the breakthrough of a provocation
From 1960 to September 1963, Lichtenstein was employed at Rutgers University in New Jersey and also moved there.He met Allan Kaprow there, who introduced him to Robert Watts, Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, Robert Whitman (b. 1935) and others. Kaprow became known for his establishment of happenings and installations that combined art with the use of everyday objects. He shared this attitude with his teacher, the musician John Cage, who was also considered a mentor to the two extreme artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Their extreme approach to art provided Lichtenstein with the basis for his provocative comic images. Lichtenstein first experimented with chewing gum pictures and then came up with the idea of producing them in large format. Started as an experiment, this idea excited the painter, and in 1961 he then broke with the rest of the traditions of previous painting by using the imitation of industrial printing technology and especially the speech bubble known from comics in his paintings.
The first result of this new idea was the 1961 picture Look Mickey, which depicted Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck on a jetty. Donald exclaims enthusiastically, “Look Mickey, I”ve hooked a big one!!!” even though his fishing hook is only caught in his jacket, Mickey is standing behind him grinning with his hand held out. This painting was Roy Lichtenstein”s breakthrough; his style also became the industrial style of printed comics. In the same year he painted six more pictures in the same style. Among these paintings is Mr. Bellamy. Lichtenstein submitted his paintings in the fall to the New York gallery owner Leo Castelli, who immediately accepted them for his gallery. A few weeks later, Andy Warhol also showed up at the same gallery with comic paintings, but Castelli rejected them. When Warhol saw Lichtenstein”s paintings, he turned away from comics, recognizing that niche as occupied. Instead, he shifted to the artistic representation of quantities and repetitions, with which he then became world-famous.
By 1962, all the paintings had been sold to important collectors and Roy Lichtenstein was able to make a living from his paintings. He processed this experience in his Masterpiece in 1962, in which he has the protagonist say to her companion: “Why, Brad Darling, this painting is a Masterpiece! My, soon you”ll have all of New York clamoring for your work!”. In this year Lichtenstein also participated in the first important exhibitions of Pop Art:
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Art and commerce
In 1963 Roy Lichtenstein moved back to New York and in the following year devoted himself entirely to painting. In the period that followed, a large number of works by the artist were created, which can be classified in various subject areas and were often painted as series. In addition to pure painting, Lichtenstein also devoted himself to sculpture as well as the installation of artistic objects; here, too, he was always mindful of the Lichtenstein style. As models for his works, he continued to use images from comic series or even from the yellow pages, as in Girl with Ball (1961).
His early work was still characterized by a strong thematic diversity. In many of these paintings, the models are still tangible and a direct comparison is possible. Others, such as the depiction of Golf Ball, are obviously studies in three-dimensionality. Strong influences from Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian can be seen in Lichtenstein”s paintings of this period, while at the same time parallels to contemporary artists such as Claes Oldenburg, who created sculptures from vinyl or plaster in the form of pieces of cake or sandwiches, become clear in his simple choice of objects. Unmistakably influenced by the inundation of advertisements for novel appliances and objects of the time, he produced paintings such as Roto Broil (1961, Engl. deep fryer), Washing Mashine (1961, Engl. washing machine), and Sock (1961, Engl. sock). This “commercial art” shared with the comic images the subtle representation. The reproduction of everyday objects met with rejection from art critics, but not from Castelli”s buyers. Through his attempt to copy the industrial and thus commercial production of comics, Lichtenstein further increased the close connection between art and commerce. With his work Art (1962), at the latest, he took the traditional institution of art ad absurdum by depicting an almost two-square-meter word in black lettering as art: ART, in German: Kunst.
The war paintings of this period in particular have often been interpreted as an anti-war stance on the part of the artist, but Lichtenstein clearly rejected it:
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Comic style abstractions
Already during his early creative phase, Lichtenstein also began to combine abstraction and his newly developed comic style. In 19641965 he created paintings and ceramic sculptures of women”s heads as well as landscapes, and also translated his explosions into sculptures (such as Explosion No. 1 (1965) in painted metal). Then, until 1969, he devoted himself to monumental architecture, his brushstroke series, explosions and modern paintings with a reference to the 1930s.
Lichtenstein also played with an alternation of strong black lines, filled and dotted surfaces in his abstract works, which seem like comic versions of the paintings of Pablo Picasso or other artists of the time. This resulted in works such as Study for Preparedness (1968) and Modular Painting with four Panels No. 2 (1969). The Brushstroke series set monochrome brushstrokes with black edging and scoring lines on a dotted ground (such as White Brushstroke I (1965) or Yellow and Green Brushstrokes (1966)). This series of works is called Brushstrokes.
In early 1969 he worked in Los Angeles on a film about seascapes and experimented with the medium of film with Joel Freedman in New York. In 1970 he moved to Southampton. The following year he became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1979 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In the 1970s, he worked with optical illusions and works from art history. During this phase, he created various still lifes such as Still-Life with Silver-Pitcher (1972), Still-Life with Net, Shell, Rope and Pulley (1972), Still Life with Goldfish (1974), and Still-Life with Lemons (1975), in which he also abstracted 19th-century still lifes. Other works use the works of other artists as models, such as Forest Scene (1980) or Rouen Cathedral (Seen at Three Different Times of Day) Set No. 2 (1969, after Claude Monet) as well as Red Horseman (1974) after the painting of the same name by Carlo Carrà. The Artist”s Studio series, in turn, dealt with his own works, which Lichtenstein depicted again in a new context (for example Artist”s Studio, Look Mickey (1973), Artist”s Studio – with model (1974), or Artist”s Studio, Foot Medication (1974)). In 1977 he designed a BMW Art Car. In 1979 he was commissioned to create a public sculpture, a mermaid for the Theater of Performing Arts in Miami Beach, Florida.
Especially in the 1980s, Roy Lichtenstein created works that completely abandoned the comic atmosphere again and recalled the artist”s expressionist and surreal roots. With clear colors, but without two-dimensional elements or framing, he depicted representational impressions such as landscapes. During this period, he created such works as Red Barn through the Trees (1984), Sunrise (1984), and Landscape with Red Roof (1985). He also created works in this style inspired by East Asian art.
Roy Lichtenstein was a participant in the 4th documenta in Kassel in 1968 and was also represented as an artist at Documenta 6 in 1977. In 1995 he was awarded the Kyoto Prize. Roy Lichtenstein received an honorary doctorate from George Washington University, Washington D.C. in 1996. He died on September 29, 1997 in Manhattan as a result of pneumonia.
Roy Lichtenstein painted with strong, clear colors. His works are often reminiscent of comics or old newspaper ads. In this way, Roy Lichtenstein tried to combine art with consumer goods. He deliberately used the template of industrial-commercial products, such as comic books and advertisements. He connected these with art and thus criticized the detachment of art from everyday and consumerist life.
For his purposes, Roy Lichtenstein further developed a special painting technique, called benday dots in English, which was developed by the American artist and inventor Benjamin Day for industrial illustration. Here, instead of areas of color, he placed only even dots of color, thus giving his large-format works an artificial effect. This grid method, which other artists initially met with humor, he also caricatured himself, for example with the work Magnifying Glass (1963).
An impressive example of Lichtenstein”s use of industrial ideas is his use of color. Like the commercial producer of printed works, he tried to use as few colors as possible. While the printer does this for economic reasons, however, in Lichtenstein”s work it becomes an artistic device. Black hair, for example in the painting Drowning Girl (1963), Lichtenstein depicted in blue, thus saving the light effects. Large areas were either completely filled or represented by the typical stippling, again a former economic constraint that Lichtenstein used in the sense of his art.
The people Lichtenstein depicted in his works lack any individuality and usually represent the archetype of the beautiful woman – usually blond – as in Eddie Diptych (1962), The Kiss (1962) or Vicky (1964).
However, Roy Lichtenstein”s work was not limited to painting pictures. He devoted himself to screen printing, wood printing and used the collage technique. The artist also created ceramic sculptures again and again.
The estate, which includes some 800 works, writings, the correspondence archive and many other documents, is held by the Lichtenstein Foundation, which was established by Roy”s widow Dorothy Lichtenstein after his death. The foundation also holds the rights to the artist”s works. In 2018, the then 78-year-old president of the foundation decided to gradually dissolve the foundation itself over five to seven years. She gave half of its holdings, some 400 works, to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the complete archive of writings and correspondence to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.