Roy Lichtenstein – Exhuming the Mastodon

Roy Lichtenstein was born in New York City on October 27, 1923. He grew up under no specific artistic influence – neither at home nor at school. But by the age of 14, Lichtenstein attended a painting class at Parson’s School of Design every Saturday morning. In 1939 he studied at the Art Students League in New York and the following year at Ohio State University.

In 1943 his education was interrupted by three years of army service, during which he drew up maps for planned troop movements across Germany during World War II. Lichtenstein received his BFA degree from Ohio State University in 1946 and MFA degree in 1949 then began a period of working in (semi) Abstract Expressionism—the predominant art movement of the time.

He taught at Ohio State University until 1951 when he moved to Cleveland, OH to work as an engineering draftsman to support his growing family. He would later take teaching positions at New York State University and then Rutgers University in the early 1960s where he would meet artists Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg and George Segal who were experimenting with different kinds of art based on everyday life—known as Pop Art.

The drastic change in Lichtenstein’s career came with his first painting in the style of a comic strip featuring Mickey Mouse. The initial stimulus is said to have come from one of his young children who pointed to an illustration of the famed mouse in a children’s book and challenged “I bet you can’t paint as good as that.”

Like other Pop artists, Lichtenstein adopted the images of commercial art but he did so in a highly distinctive manner. Inspired by the comic strips, he worked in a massive scale using stencils which produced rows of dots (benday dots) making the works look mass produced. One of his peculiarities was that he did not want his brush strokes visible—intentionally making the work look machine made.

In 1961 he visited Andy Warhol at the Factory where he saw the artist’s comic strip and consumer products paintings. The next year he had his first one man show at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York where it was a sold-out success enabling him to give up teaching the following year and devote himself entirely to painting. Through Castelli, Lichtenstein met fellow artists Robert Rauschenberg, Alex Katz and Jasper Johns and would eventually exhibit repeatedly with Warhol, Rosenquist, Dine, Rauschenberg and Johns among others. In 1963 he created his iconic imagery of D.C. Comics’ Girls’ Romances and Secret Hearts and exhibited at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles.

Roy Lichtenstein produced a number of graphic prints for which he used different techniques: lithographs, screenprints, etchings and woodcuts, sometimes combining multiple techniques in one print. In 1994 a Lichtenstein print retrospective opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and later traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and to the Dallas Art Museum. The show coincided with the release of The Prints of Roy Lichtenstein: A Catalogue Raisonne by Mary Lee Corlett. The National Gallery in Washington, D.C. would become the largest repository of Lichtenstein’s prints when the artist gifted 154 prints from 1948-1993 and two books to the institution.

Roy Lichtenstein died of pneumonia on September 29, 1997 at New York University Medical Center. Twice married, he was survived by his wife, Dorothy, whom he wed in 1968, and by his sons, David and Mitchell, from his first marriage.

Roy Lichtenstein’s work is found in numerous public and private collections around the world, including National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Guggenheim Museum, New York; Tate Modern, London; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC; National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.Lichtenstein_install1