Roy Lichtenstein


Roy Lichtenstein

One of the most challenging decades in the history of Twentieth-century American art began in the early 1960’s with the inception of the Pop art movement. In February 1962, at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, Roy Lichtenstein exhibited his first series of paintings based on comic strips and advertising images of consumer goods. By1963, he and other artists of his generation had turned to the common object, popular culture, or the mass media as the underlying theme of their paintings and sculpture, and effectively brought to an end the long reign of abstract Expressionism. In a seminal interview in ART News in 1963, Lichtenstein remarked that his ambition was to make a painting that was so “despicable” that no one would hang it. He noted, “Everybody was hanging everything. It was almost acceptable to hang a dripping paint rag; everybody was accustomed to this. The one thing that everyone hated was commercial art.” Lichtenstein stated that his art- and Pop art in general- was concerned with the world, and that art since Cezanne had become extremely romantic and unrealistic, feeding on art; it is utopian. It has less and less to so with the world, it looks inward.” Although he maintained that his was not a critical voice, he declared that he was “ani-complative, anti-nuance, anti-getting-away-from-tyranny-of-the-rectangle, anti-movement, and-light, anti-mystery, anti-paint-quality, anti-Zen, anti-all of those brilliant ideas of proceeding movements which everyone understand so thoroughly.”

In his blatant use of cartoon imagery and advertising techniques, Lichtenstein proposed a new visual syntax with which to identify American postwar society. Adapting the look and attitude of advertising and the comic strip, he presented the portrait of a consumer culture to an audience accustomed to seeing in painting the results of an intense inner struggle, and claimed for the Ben Day dot a role that only a short time earlier had belonged to the drip. Many in the art world greeted Lichtenstein’s work with derision. Some of the most vocal opposition came from partisans of Abstract Expressionism as a threat or envisioned the possibility of a return to realism – were unprepared to meet this challenge. Thus, against all the odds, Lichtenstein and his colleagues succeeded in winning a new audience for art and began what can now be seen as a historic shit in its direction.

Along with being such an important force behind the inception of the Pop movement, Lichtenstein devoted himself seriously to printmaking earlier than any other major artist of his generation (he made his first two prints in 1948 – a lithograph and a wood-cut-and by1950 had added etching and screen print to his repertoire), is widely acknowledged as one of the most important printmakers of our time. Printmaking often provides him with an arena in which he is at his most experimental, apt to try something new, especially with materials.

Through Lichtenstein’s merging of popular imagery and “high” art, and other transgressions of traditional aesthetic conventions, he has become one of the contemporary art world’s most enduring and important figures.

Excerpts by Diane Waldman and Ruth E. Fine