Roy Lichtenstein (1923 –1997) was an American pop artist. During the 1960s, his paintings were exhibited at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York City and, along with Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist, and others. He became a leading figure in the new art movement. His work defined the basic premise of pop art better than any other through parody. Favoring the old-fashioned comic strip as subject matter, Lichtenstein produced hard-edged, precise compositions that documented while it parodied often in a tongue-in-cheek humorous manner. His work was heavily influenced by both popular advertising and the comic book style. He described pop art as, “not ‘American’ painting but actually industrial painting”.
In 1951 Lichtenstein had his first solo exhibition at the Carlebach Gallery in New York. His work at this time fluctuated between Cubism and Expressionism.
In 1961, Leo Castelli started displaying Lichtenstein’s work at his gallery in New York. Lichtenstein had his first one-man show at the Castelli gallery in 1962; the entire collection was bought by influential collectors before the show even opened. A group of paintings produced between 1961-1962 focused on solitary household objects such as sneakers, hot dogs, and golf balls.
It was at this time, that Lichtenstein began to find fame not just in America but worldwide. Rather than attempt to reproduce his subjects, his work tackled the way mass media portrays them. Lichtenstein would never take himself too seriously however: “I think my work is different from comic strips- but I wouldn’t call it transformation; I don’t think that whatever is meant by it is important to art”.
His most famous image is arguably Whaam! (1963, Tate Modern, London), one of the earliest known examples of pop art, adapted a comic-book panel from a 1962 issue of DC Comics’ All-American Men of War. The painting depicts a fighter aircraft firing a rocket into an enemy plane, with a red-and-yellow explosion. The cartoon style is heightened by the use of the onomatopoeic lettering “Whaam!” and the boxed caption “I pressed the fire control… and ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky…” This diptych is large in scale, measuring 1.7 x 4.0 m (5 ft 7 in x 13 ft 4 in). Whaam is widely regarded as one of his finest and most notable works. It follows the comic strip-based themes of some of his previous paintings and is part of a body of war-themed work created between 1962 and 1964.
In the early 1960s, Lichtenstein reproduced masterpieces by Cézanne, Mondrian and Picasso before embarking on the Brushstroke series in 1965. Lichtenstein continued to revisit this theme later in his career with works such as Bedroom at Arles that derived from Vincent van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles.
In addition to paintings and sculptures, Lichtenstein also made over 300 prints, mostly in screenprint and lithograph. He also worked in woodcut and to a lesser degree etching and aquatint.
Pop art continues to influence the 21st century. Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol were used in U2’s 1997, 1998 PopMart Tour and in an exhibition in 2007 at the British National Portrait Gallery.
He died of pneumonia in 1997 at New York University Medical Center, where he had been hospitalized for several weeks.