Roy Lichtenstein

Roy (Fox) Lichtenstein was born in 1923, in New York City. He went to a private school and, in 1939, took courses with Reginald Marsh at the Art Students League, New York. During this time, Lichtenstein did first drawings, models, and depictions of New York urban scenes. In 1940, his studies led him to the class of Hoyt L. Sherman at Ohio State University, Columbus, where he was introduced to Expressionism. In 1943, Lichtenstein was drafted into the U.S. military and went to Europe where he remained until 1946. Returning to the U.S. after the war, he finished his studies and worked as an instructor at Ohio State until 1951. After first exhibitions in New York and after a temporary position as a draftsman, he became Assistant Professor at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, and moved to New York in 1963.

By now the most well-known representative of Pop Art next to Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein created paintings that were inspired by the pictorial spectrum of the comic and of advertisement. In his works, he confronts the viewer with what seems to be the essence of a consumer society: objects as well as optical or cultural phenomena that question forms of visual communication and contemporary culture. Lichtenstein’s early works are characterized by his concern with the Comic Strip and the classical genres of painting such as still life and landscapes, with specific works of art, and with painterly techniques. His first public appearances were set off in sharp contrast to the abstract expressionist tendencies of a U.S.-American art that had initially been a point of orientation: »Takka Takka!«, »Oh, Jeff … I love you, too … But … !« – from the canvases of the early 1960s one sees and hears of dramatic air-to-air encounters, of hot vows of love uttered by American middle-class beauties and smart men out of dreams. As clipped yet monumental images, the figures are satirized. Lichtenstein thus confronts the viewer with popular culture and its dissemination through the media. His blatant paraphrasings of War Comics or Teen and Action Comics – often accompanied by speech balloons – soon became incunables of Pop Art. On second sight, they turn out to be playful dealings with picture citations (Blam, 1962; Oh, Jeff…I Love You Too, …But…, 1964). They are also distanced observations of a consumerist present, an illusory world of big feelings and heroic moments. The distance from the picture’s theme is created by Lichtenstein’s specific painterly technique and pictorial language. He made use of the raster structure of Benday Dots as well as a reduced color spectrum, a two-dimensional application of colors, and the contours of the catchy, visual language of the comics.

In the 1960s, Lichtenstein turned towards a central theme of his œuvre: the mirror. Inittially approaching the sujet through photography and photographic defamiliarization, he developed a new graphic language in the field of painting in order to represent optical phenomena of the mirror and of mirroring, of glass and light reflections, and to probe the limits of painting. In a quasi-idiosyncratic sign system, specific structures of painting, fine- and coarse-grained rasters of different sized dots, but also linear structures, come to stand for a transparent materiality or for specific object qualities – such as the mirror character of single objects.

In the picture Magnifying Glass from 1963, enacting the gaze at a raster field through a drawn magnifying glass, Lichtenstein already convincingly demonstrated his system of drawing and painting, a system directed towards the object and the materiality of the object. The mirror paintings, developed until the 1970s, concentrated on the representability of optical phenomena that had been dealt with since the time of Mannerist painting: light reflexes in the glass pane of a picture frame, or mirror surfaces are transformed through painting into raster pictures in black and white (Him, 1964; Mirror No. 1, 1969). Yet they also demonstrate complex phenomena of reflection on large-format, vertically segmented canvasses. Aside from rasterized areas, these canvasses show reflections also through interrupted, monochrome color fields (Spiegel aus sechs Tafeln (Mirror Made of Six Panels), 1971).

Almost at the same time, until the mid-1970s, Lichtenstein did a series of architecture friezes. They are again object-related and grounded in drawing – yet they now consist of architectonic elements (Apollo-Tempel, 1964; Architekturfries, 1972). Similar to the mirror paintings and the still lives, Lichtenstein again employed rasterizing as a technique to define and differentiate between specific material and spatial qualities. With the sometimes chromatic gradations of the dot sizes, rasters can also simulate light and shadow as well as spatial effects.

Since the second half of the 1960s, a specific group of Lichtenstein’s works has been characterized by its critical reference to the works of other artists, by its dealing with artistic signatures, and techniques. These works include basic reflections on the potential and the significance of art or, rather, of »high art.« With the words of the speech balloon »Why, Brad Darling, this painting is a Masterpiece? My, soon You’ll have all of New York clamoring for Your work!« in Masterpiece from 1962, the theme was already suggested. Lichtenstein’s works now referred to a spectrum of works like the Laocoon of antiquity, to Monet’s cathedral pictures (Rouen Cathedral, Seen at Three Different Times of the Day, 1969), van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles to Schlemmer’s Bauhaustreppe (Bauhaus Stairs), as well as Léger’s and de Kooning’s pictures. With their raster structures and stylizations, they comment on and satirize the painting styles of Futurism, Expressionism, and Surrealism. With the brushstroke series (Rouen Cathedral, Seen at Three Different Times of the Day, 1969), Lichtenstein also created symbols of painterly spontaneity, freed from subjectivity, which one may read as self-reflexive contributions to painting. Ironically, this was done through the medium of panel painting and developed through the technique of two-dimensional graphic object depiction.

This sequence of works, reaching into the late 1970s, is also closely related to Lichtenstein’s ceramic sculptures and the wood or metal objects with which he explored techniques and contents of his paintings also in three-dimensional objects. The absurdity of the approach is again intensified, for example, through the transforming of raster dots into cylinder-like relief shapes, of hachures into jutting rods, or through the use of the brushstroke motif on a sculpture (Brushstroke Nude, 1993).

In Lichtenstein’s works of the 1990s, the previous groups of works remain alive. The interieur pictures (Interior with Mirrored Wall, 1991), for example, which one may read as satirical treatments of interior decoration shows again draw on the results of the mirror paintings. Yet they may also be seen as following the early architectural pictures.

Lichtenstein’s works were first shown in exhibitions in 1951, at the Carlebach Gallery and at the John Heller Gallery, both in New York. In 1962, there were exhibitions at the Leo Castelli Gallery and, in 1963, at the Ferus Gallery, New York, as well as at the Galerie Ileana Sonnabend, Paris. With his participation in the exhibition »The New Paintings of Common Objects« at the Pasadena Art Museum and with »New Realists« at the Sidney Janis Gallery, New York (both in 1962), Lichtenstein’s work came to be recognized in the context of Pop Art. His first museum exhibitions took place at the Cleveland Art Museum (1966) and, among other locations, at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. In 1968 and 1977, Lichtenstein participated in the Documenta and in 1984 and 1986, in the Venice Biennale. Among the more recent solo exhibitions that have presented his often-shown works are shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York (2003), at the Museo Nacional Reina Sofia, Madrid (2004), at the Kunsthaus Bregenz, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (both 2005), and the Henry Art Gallery, Seattle (2006).

Roy Lichtenstein died in 1997, in Manhattan.

Selected Literature

Roy Lichtenstein – Klassik des Neuen: Ausst.-Kat. Kunsthaus Bregenz, Köln 2005

Wattolik, E.: Die Parodie im Frühwerk Roy Lichtensteins. Comic-Gemälde von 1961 — 1964, Weimar 2005

Roy Lichtenstein, Spiegelbilder 1963 — 1997: Ausst.-Kat Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Ostfildern 2000

Roy Lichtenstein: Ausst.-Kat. Fondation Beyeler, Ostfildern 1998

Busche, E.-A.: Roy Lichtenstein. Das Frühwerk 1942 — 1960, Berlin 1988

Bildrechte: Calder Foundation New York / Foto Stiftung Lehmbruck Museum Foto: Tobias Roch, Hagen Bildrechte: VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2014 Bildrechte: gemeinfrei, Foto: Peter Hinschläger

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