Roy Lichtenstein
Biography of American Pop Artist, Comic-Strip-style Painter Using Benday Dots.

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Whaam! (1963)
Tate Collection, London.

Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)

Contents

Biography
Early Life
Pop Art
Comic-Strip Images
Use of Benday Dots
Whaam!
Different Types of Paintings
Legacy


ART PERIODS & STYLES
For profiles of art schools, see:
Modern Art Movements (1860-1970).

WORLDS TOP ARTISTS
Best Artists of All Time.

PRINTMAKING
For more about types of
fine art printing, used by
artists like Roy Lichtenstein
including engraving, etching,
lithographic and silkscreen
methods, see:
Printmaking: History, Types.

HIGHEST PRICED ART
For a list of the highest prices paid
for works of art by famous painters:
Most Expensive Paintings: Top 10.

Biography

The American painter, sculptor and printmaker Roy Fox Lichtenstein, along with Andy Warhol, was one of the leading figures in the Pop-art movement during the 1960s. He is best known for his instantly recognizable comic-strip style of painting, as exemplified by works like "Whaam!" (1963, Tate Gallery, London) and "Drowning Girl" (1963, Museum of Modern Art, New York). These paintings - now seen as iconic images of American art - were based on magnified details of advertisements of everyday objects and comic-strip imagery, featuring heavy black outlines and primary colours. The colours and tones were built up with primary-coloured dots, but since his pictures were bigger than newspaper comic strips, the dots were painted through stencils and called Benday Dots, after the illustrator Benjamin Day. Modern artists like Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and Jasper Johns (b.1930) had already used cartoons in their works, but only as part of painted collages. Lichtenstein went further and made the cartoon, the work itself. His other works include: Takka Takka (1962, Museum Ludwig, Cologne); Torpedo...Los (1963, Private Collection); In the Car (1963, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art); Hopeless (1963, Kunstmuseum, Basel); and Still Life with Crystal Bowl (1973, Whitney Museum of American Art). He is one of the best known 20th century painters of the Pop-Art movement, and many of his paintings are available as prints in the form of poster art.

 

Early Life

Lichtenstein came from a middle class New York family with no particular art connections, and it wasn't until his final year of secondary school that he was able to further his interest in sketching and portrait art at summer art classes organized by the NY Arts Students League. After leaving school, he enrolled in a degree course at Ohio State University to study fine art, although his studies were interrupted by a 3-year period of army service.

Returning to Ohio after the war, he was strongly influenced by one of his art tutors, Hoyt L. Sherman. (Years later Lichtenstein was to endow a new studio at OSU which he named the Hoyt L. Sherman Studio Art Center). On graduation, he was offered a post as an art instructor at the University, a position he held on and off for the next decade. In 1951, he had his first one-man show at a gallery in New York, after which he moved to Cleveland for six years, doing odd jobs in between spells of painting. His style of oil painting during these early years was close to Cubism, however on his return to New York in 1957 - where he resumed teaching at the New York State College of Education at Oswego - he turned to Abstract Expressionism, producing works which impressed no one.

Pop Art

Then in 1960 he took up a teaching position at Douglass College, a division of Rutgers University in New Jersey, which brought him into contact with a fellow teacher - the art-theorist and performance artist Allan Kaprow (1927-2006) - and triggered his involvement in pop-art.

Inspired by Surrealism and avant-garde forms of Conceptual art, the basic idea behind Pop - in sharp contrast to the super-intellectualism of Abstract Expressionism - was to create a type of art with instant meaning. To achieve this, Pop artists explored new commercial processes, adopting subjects, imagery and colour schemes from easily recognizable media sources, such as consumer goods, advertising graphics, magazines, television, and comic books. Pop artists presented the modern world of popular culture with whatever materials they thought appropriate, no matter how low-brow or trivial. It was high impact modern art for Joe Public.

Comic Strip Images

Lichtenstein was quickly hooked and soon joined the cohort of aspiring Pop artists including Jim Dine, Robert Indiana, Alex Katz, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, Tom Wesselmann, and Andy Warhol. He began by painting free-hand versions of comic-strip picture frames, complete with text bubbles (eg. "Look Mickey" 1961, National Gallery, Washington DC) and in 1962 enjoyed a hugely successful sell-out one-man show at the Leo Castelli gallery in New York. Later that year his comic-strip images appeared in two important art shows - one of them curated by Walter Hopps at the Pasadena Art Museum ("The New Painting of Common Objects"), the other at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York ("New Realism").

Use of Benday Dots

Lichtenstein took images from gum wrappers, cartoons and comic strips (drawn originally by artists like Tony Abruzzo, Jerry Grandinetti, Russ Heath and Irv Novick), recomposed them and then blew up the images to a large scale, reproducing the heavy black outlines, primary colours and benday dots of cheap printing processes.

Whaam!

In 1963 he produced his most famous painting - Whaam! - a cartoon-style picture of a fighter aircraft firing a rocket at an enemy plane complete with a vivid explosion and the caption "I pressed the fire control... and ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky..." Through this and other works, Lichtenstein began to achieve worldwide attention and, arguably - along with Andy Warhol - became one of the leading representatives of Pop art culture. If Mark Rothko's monumental works of Colour Field Painting were largely unknown to the general public, almost everyone recognized Warhol's pictures of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and other celebrities, and related easily to Lichtenstein's comic-strip art. In this sense, both artists exemplified the new movement's avowed intent to reject the elitist character of traditional, high-brow art in favour of populist pictures of well-known subjects. As Lichtenstein himself said: "art is all around us."

Different Types of Paintings

In the mid-sixties he began creating Pop versions of paintings by modern masters, including Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) and Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), and started screenprinting. In the seventies he broadened his range to include sculpture, most often in polished brass in the Art Deco style of the 1930s. In addition he completed a number of composite works such as Artist's Studio, Look Mickey (1973, Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis), dabbled with Surrealism in works like Pow Wow (1979, Ludwig Forum, Aachen) and designed a range of ceramic tableware. His later work featured several large-scale commissions for public places (eg. Lamp in St. Mary’s, Georgia). In 1989, at Christie's sale of contemporary art in New York, Lichtenstein's painting "Torpedo...Los!" sold for $5.5 million - a record for the artist. See: Most Expensive Paintings: Top 20.

In 1996, Lichtenstein gifted a total of 154 prints to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, which thus became the largest single repository of his work. He died of pneumonia at New York University Medical Center in September 1997.

Legacy

Even if the subject matter of his art was essentially trivial, and borrowed heavily from both existing imagery and commercial printing techniques, Lichtenstein made a huge contribution to contemporary art. His use of populist iconography to expand the definition of art, and his palette of primary colours to create powerful images, is as relevant and meaningful to the development of visual art as any Picasso or Renoir. Indeed, in comparison with many examples of postmodernist art, his paintings look positively conservative!

Works by Roy Lichtenstein can be seen in many of the best art museums in America.

• For biographies of other Pop artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more about American Pop Art, see: Homepage.


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