Back to Homepage
A Modern Master
At first glance, the artwork of Roy Lichtenstein might seem simplistic and easy to describe and define. Many art texts seem to find it easy to explain his work in a couple of lines and move on. In my opinion Roy Lichtenstein is a fascinating and complex artist. He is a serious artist with legitimate aims and has a philosophy of art that encompasses many things.
The World Book Encyclopedia says of this artist that his work “shows his interest in mass-produced commercial illustrations, especially comic strips.” One art history textbook says of his work that “he makes giant cartoon-like paintings. Often, he pokes gentle fun at the melodrama of the comics and the national fascination with them.” Another art history text says that the dialogue in his paintings “represents what the artist considered to be the trivial dialogue between couples in soap operas.”
Most of the above statements are not untrue. Lichtenstein, however, disagreed with some of them. After researching this artist for years and reading several books about him I can only say as I read these statements, “There’s so much more to it than that!” To describe an artist in almost dismissive terms like these do an injustice to his work. Roy Lichtenstein is one of the most fascinating artists I have ever read about. The more I learn about him, the more respect I have for him and his work.
Unlike some artists, not much is known about his personal life. He is a very personal man. Not much is written about his wife and family. It is significant to me that we know more about his work and techniques than we do the gossip about him. The first thing that is impressive to many about Roy Lichtenstein was his work ethic. He was, simply stated, a very hard worker. In fact one biography remarks that his was “not art for art’s sake but art as evidence of a work ethic, validated by intensity of production and the pace of coherent change.”
His studio was characterized by absolute precision. Materials were laid out in meticulous order. He would “begin work at his studio each morning by nine, eat lunch at the same hour every day, and then continue working until seven in the evening – or even later.”
Roy Lichtenstein, along with Andy Warhol and others changed the art world in 1961 when they began including straightforward images from ads and comics and other sources from popular culture. They were painting what they saw, and what they saw was banal and vulgar to the established art world.
Lichtenstein’s first Pop Art painting was of a comic found in a bubble gum wrapper. Lichtenstein made a drawing of that wrapper. He then made a painting based on his drawing. He enjoyed making images that were several times removed from their original source. He was trying to make his own paintings look mechanical, with no artistic pretensions. There are no beautiful brushstrokes. They appear to be mechanically made.
He says that after he made his first pop art painting, “Look Mickey!” in 1961 that “he couldn’t do any other kind of painting.” Everything else he attempted to do appeared to “look like mush” to him. His friend and gallery owner Alan Kaprow encouraged him, telling him not to worry about it “not looking like art.” “If it’s part of you, it will be there,” he said. Within weeks there appeared within the same gallery works in a similar spirit by Warhol and Rosenquist. People began to recognize that this was the beginnings of a movement.
Lichtenstein was fascinated by images used in advertising. He purposely sought out images that appeared to be crudely drawn. “Advertising is a tremendous force and it’s also a very new force,” said the artist. “It’s a very big part of our culture – the new part.” How could art be modern and ignore this visual part of our surroundings? This new style realized that to be truly modern this new cultural imagery had to find a place in “high art”.
Beginning in the early sixties he used an iconography of household objects, drawn particularly from the kitchen. In paintings like “Electric Range”, “Roto Broil” and “Electric Cord” he presented images from a product catalog. One writer explains it this way: “The object is presented in its completeness, with no modifying objects around it and no plane for it to stand on. It occupies the picture-plane emblematically, centralized and head-on.” The mundane becomes monumental.
Lichtenstein liked the clichés he found in comic books. “This work can be looked at as cliché or it can be looked at as classicism. The ideal head is a classical idea. The idea of drawing this girl the same way or ‘Brad’ – an ideal… it’s standard, but it’s not looked up to when it’s isolated.”
Forcing the viewer to examine something that they wouldn’t have given a second thought if they had seen it in a different context also intrigues him. For instance, when we read a comic book we are looking at pictures that were drawn strictly for the purpose of telling a story. We accept these images as real, but when this artist enlarges them, we see how artificial and abstract they really are.
“I try to look for something that says something mysterious or absurd or extremely simple or extremely complicated,” said Lichtenstein about how he chose source material from comic books. “Something that when its part of a painting will strike you as funny.”
One writer explains the appeal of the comic book paintings this way: “Lichtenstein intends to raise images from popular culture to the level of high art by transforming it in his work. He takes devalued forms of visual communication, redeems them, and possesses them through recreating them in his paintings. Because he has considered and minutely adjusted every line, form and color area, his art breathes finesse and refinement.”
Changing the context of the images he found forces the viewer to examine them. The face is made of red dots. The girl has really yellow hair. It’s not just changing the context that made it art to Lichtenstein, though. It was also organizing the marks in a way that they interact with each other. When commercial art is made the artists aren’t really thinking about the formal qualities.
“What I do is form,” explained the artist, “whereas the comic strip is not formed in the sense that I’m using the word; the comics have shapes but there has been no effort to make them intensely unified. The purpose is different, one intends to depict and I intend to unify. And my work is actually different from the comic strips in that every mark is in a different place, however slight the differences seem to some. The difference is often not great, but it is crucial.” 
“Because you’re starting with somebody else’s art,” he went on to say, “It says something about communication. You’re not looking at a nature garden or something. You’re taking known symbols and styles of things and recreating them.” Images were mediated by the exploitation of preexisting symbols. The subject of his art is the artificiality of communication.
When viewers first saw his work many were so outraged by the source of subject matter that they could not begin to appreciate the formal qualities of the work. Lichtenstein himself said, “I always think that it’s the formal part that gets neglected and that usually people talk about what the subject means. And when they do that, it sounds fairly obvious. I think it’s the formal part that nobody understands. It is the kinesthetic and visual sense of position and wholeness that puts the thing in the realm or art. For most people the formal part is not what they see. One may be influenced by the sense of form and think it’s really all right without understanding why. But the understanding of form is limited because I think people don’t tend to see it unless they are artists.”
When asked about the mysteriousness of his iconography, he said that critics were confused as to what his attitude toward the comics was. “I think of it as an ironic look at and use of what is usually called vulgar art,” he explained. “It’s using those symbols to make something else. It’s really the art we have around us; we’re not living in the world of Impressionist painting.” He seemed to take mischievous delight in using material many insisted was inappropriate. “For me, it has a ‘you’re a bad boy copying comics’ thing because our art teacher told us not to copy, and if you did copy, it certainly wouldn’t be commercial art.” What he saw in mechanical production of artwork was a lack of nuance. There is red and there’s 50% red. They don’t care what kind of pink is used. He aimed to take the least elegant thing he could find and tried to make something elegant out of it.
Lichtenstein developed through a series of highly distinctive stages. His style has remained constant, however. The black lines, primary colors, Ben Day dots and stencils have remained part of his art, as if he were enthralled by it. He abandoned his comic book images for a while to make paintings of isolated brush strokes, mirror reflections and works that referred to icons from art history.
When he paid tribute to an art history icon from the past, he didn’t refer directly to a Picasso, for instance, but looked at a poor reproduction of one.
As he sought to find ideas to rework in his own image he investigated the age-old question of what constitutes art. While doing so in his homage to other artists he was conscious of his own place in art history. He sees himself as part of a continuous line of descent beginning with Medieval Art. Art began as only religious but began to include common people, beggars, still lives and landscapes. Cubists then began to use bits of newspaper and wallpaper. He sees this “vulgarizing” as a part of recent art history and as crucial – of things becoming more vernacular. In all his work, he poses the question, “What makes one mark art and another not? Why is this so good? I pursued that interest.”
Thus far I’ve only been able to present a brief overview of Lichtenstein’s art and philosophy. I would like to look a little deeper by looking at specific paintings.
This particular image exists nowhere in any one comic. The sources are actually four different images put together. The reference to ‘pouring’ is an art world in-joke. It refers to Morris Louis’ brand of modern painting, using poured paint. Lichtenstein delighted in the double take. “Okay, hot shot, okay! I’m pouring!” Was this Lichtenstein’s humorous answer to the critics who attacked his work? Was this his tongue in cheek reaction to others insisting that if he were making real art, he would be pouring the paint on the canvas to make nonobjective designs?
Other works of his resemble more closely a single source material. One scholar states that he purposely did this to challenge the belief that one could not copy and still be original. “Copying from another’s artist’s work had been out of style for a good part of the twentieth century; the avant-garde had increasingly set store by invention. In resorting to old-fashioned copying (and of such “unartistic” models), Lichtenstein did something characteristic: he made it so obvious that he was copying that everyone knew it. In effect he threw down the gauntlet, challenging the notion of originality as it prevailed at that time. 
This is one of Lichtenstein’s rare drawings that were not done as a study for a painting. Lichtenstein was fond of visual puns and this is one example of one. Though it is called “Conversation”, there is no speech balloon. It was about this time that he stopped using them for a while in his work. He emphasizes the harsh angular lines in the man’s face and emphasizes the soft curves in the woman’s. The man’s expression is obscured from view, but seems calm, while the woman appears to be in shock. This is more than a man copying comic books. He is presenting our stereotypes of men and women and forcing us to think about them. Have men been told to hide their feelings? One scholar explains his art “translates the simplistic naturalism and melodrama of the comics into a pictorial structure of a high order.” 
Conflict in male / female relationships is a recurring theme in his artwork. In “Forget it! Forget me!” he approaches it in a similar way. Again, the man’s face is more than half obscured by cropping of the picture frame. The woman appears distraught as the man walks away.
In “Conversation, he emphasizes the dots between the faces in such a way that the shape refuses to recede into the background as it should. It becomes a focal point. The picture plane is all-important, as he felt that that was what made painting modern.
One can tell that from the sketches that he labored over each line. He would create several different versions and studies preparing for the major canvasses. The contour line itself was drawn in outline and then filled in, giving it a distinctly object-like character. Lichtenstein insisted that the line both described the object and exists in its own right. “I think Matisse is like that; the mark is just the mark and it may be part of the same arm, but you can see how he does think about it as separate.”
When Lichtenstein’s work appeared, critics couldn’t get past the subject matter. These were the same critics who told us that a subject matter wasn’t necessary. Over time, however, some have been willing to give his work a second look. In discussing this artist and the philosophy behind his work, I hope I’ve persuaded the reader to do so as well.
 “Discovering Art History”
 “Themes and Foundations in Art”
 “Roy Lichtenstein: The Artist at Work”
 “Portrait of an Artist: Roy Lichtenstein” , a video by Public Media Home Vision. 1991.
 “Modern Masters Series”
 “Portrait of an Artist”.
 Smithsonian Magazine.
 “The Drawings of Roy Lichtenstein”
 “The Drawings of Roy Lichtenstein”
The Drawings of Roy Lichtenstein, by Bernice Rose. 1987, the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Modern Masters Series: Roy Lichtenstein, by Lawrence Alloway, Abbeville Press, New York. First Edition, 1983.
Discovering Art History,. 1997, Davis Publications.
Themes and Foundations in Art, by Katz, Lankford and Plank. 1995, West Publishing Compnay, New York.
Portrait of an Artist: Roy Lichtenstein, a video by Public Media Home Vision. 1991.
“High and Low” modern art meets popular culture” by Phill Patton, Smithsonian Magazine, November 1990.
Roy Lichtenstein: The Artist at Work, by Lou Ann Walker. Copyright 1994, Lodestar books, New York.
Andrew Wales is from
Athens Pennsylvania and has a B.A. in Art Education. He currently teaches
elementary school art and works as a freelance artist and writer.