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Roy Lichtenstein: Artwork & Biography

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Roy Lichtenstein was one of the founders of a major artistic style. In this lesson, we're going to explore his life and works, and see how he combined high and low culture in a timeless parody of American lives.

Roy Lichtenstein

In art, inspiration can come from all sorts of places. Artists may find themselves inspired by the passing of midday light through the dancing leaves of summer trees, or the dazzling heroism of epic heroes in mythological tales. Or comic books. Those can be inspiring too. In the 1960s, American artists developed a movement that explored the role of mass media and popular culture, especially in terms of the ubiquitous proliferation of images throughout daily life. Their inspiration came from magazines, tabloids, advertisements, billboards, and yes, even comics. We call this pop art. Pop art was a relatively brief but very important movement, and one artist to champion it was a man named Roy Lichtenstein.

Biography

Roy Lichtenstein was born to a Jewish family in New York in 1923, and raised in an atmosphere of art and culture in Manhattan. In New York, he became a big fan of jazz music and other forms of popular culture, and after high school joined the Art Students League of New York, a prominent organization for aspiring artists. Lichtenstein began college at Ohio State University before leaving to serve in World War II as a draftsman, orderly, and artist. He was released honorably from service to visit his dying father, and later resumed school in Ohio. He would end up teaching art at this same university.

As an artist, Lichtenstein started out somewhat adrift. He experimented with the colorful expressionist movement of the late 19th century, as well as the cubist movement of the early 20th. In the late 1950s, he started working in abstract expressionism, a major American movement that had begun a decade earlier.

By 1960, Roy Lichtenstein was an abstract expressionist painter teaching at Rutgers, but there was something unique about his artwork. Despite the fact that abstract expressionism is supposed to be void of recognizable figures, Lichtenstein started sneaking in small images of Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny. Slowly, he moved away from abstract expressionism and started exploring the use of such iconic symbols of pop culture in fine art. He became obsessed with popular culture, and by 1965 was emerging as a leading figure in a brand new genre of art.

Style and Major Works

Pop art, the style that Lichtenstein would help to define, was focused on the emulation of popular culture as fine art. This included an elevation of mundane and stereotypical low forms of art, like advertising and comics, as well as the methods of mass production that gave them power. Roy Lichtenstein's career would expand decades and eventually move into sculpture as well. He reproduced famous works of art as comic book panels, designed installations for major museums around the world, and redefined modern art in the late 20th century. However, some of his most famous pieces come from the earliest years of his experimentation with pop art.

Whaam!

Let's start with Whaam!, painted in 1963. This diptych (a painting on two connected panels) displays an American fighting jet destroying an enemy aircraft in what looks like the panel of a comic strip. In fact, Whaam! is almost a direct copy of DC Comics 1962 All-American Men of War.

Whaam! by Roy Lichtenstein
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So, was Lichtenstein just a copycat? No. By basing his painting on something that was traditionally seen as low culture, Lichtenstein broke a substantial barrier in the world of art, recognizing that popular culture may have more sway on American attitudes than fine art. It was a powerful comment on the value of popular culture, as well as the dangers of mass produced culture in overshadowing fine art. The romantic depiction of warfare found in comics like DC's retelling of American wars is also significant, and it should be noted that Lichtenstein himself was once enrolled in a pilot's program during WWII before the program was cancelled.

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