Roy Lichtenstein was born in New York City, into an upper-middle-class Jewish family. His father, Milton, was a real estate broker, his mother, Beatrice (Werner), a homemaker. He was raised on the Upper West Side and attended public school until the age of twelve. He then enrolled at New York’s Franklin School for Boys, remaining there for his secondary education. Lichtenstein first became interested in art and design as a hobby, and through school. He was an avid jazz fan, often attending concerts at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He frequently drew portraits of the musicians playing their instruments. In his last year of high school, 1939, Lichtenstein enrolled in summer classes at the Art Students League of New York, where he worked under the tutelage of Reginald Marsh.
Lichtenstein then left New York to study at the Ohio State University, which offered studio courses and a degree in fine arts. His studies were interrupted by a three-year stint in the army during and after World War II between 1943 and 1946. After being in training programs for languages, engineering, and pilot training, all of which were cancelled, he served as an orderly, draftsman, and artist. Lichtenstein returned home to visit his dying father and was discharged from the army with eligibility for the G.I. Bill. He returned to studies in Ohio under the supervision of one of his teachers, Hoyt L. Sherman, who is widely regarded to have had a significant impact on his future work (Lichtenstein would later name a new studio he funded at OSU as the Hoyt L. Sherman Studio Art Center). Lichtenstein entered the graduate program at Ohio State and was hired as an art instructor, a post he held on and off for the next ten years. In 1949 Lichtenstein received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Ohio State University.
In 1951 Lichtenstein had his first solo exhibition at the Carlebach Gallery in New York. He moved to Cleveland in the same year, where he remained for six years, although he frequently traveled back to New York. During this time he undertook jobs as varied as a draftsman to a window decorator in between periods of painting. His work at this time fluctuated between Cubism and Expressionism. In 1954, his first son, David Hoyt Lichtenstein, now a songwriter, was born. His second son, Mitchell Lichtenstein, was born in 1956.In 1957, he moved back to upstate New York and began teaching again. It was at this time that he adopted the Abstract Expressionism style, being a late convert to this style of painting. Lichtenstein began teaching in upstate New York at the State University of New York at Oswego in 1958. About this time, he began to incorporate hidden images of cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny into his abstract works.
In 1960, he started teaching at Rutgers University where he was heavily influenced by Allan Kaprow, who was also a teacher at the university. This environment helped reignite his interest in Proto-pop imagery. In 1961, Lichtenstein began his first pop paintings using cartoon images and techniques derived from the appearance of commercial printing. This phase would continue to 1965, and included the use of advertising imagery suggesting consumerism and homemaking. His first work to feature the large-scale use of hard-edged figures and Ben-Day dots was Look Mickey (1961, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). This piece came from a challenge from one of his sons, who pointed to a Mickey Mouse comic book and said; “I bet you can’t paint as good as that, eh, Dad?” In the same year he produced six other works with recognizable characters from gum wrappers and cartoons. 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. In September 1963 he took a leave of absence from his teaching position at Douglass College at Rutgers.
It was at this time that Lichtenstein began to find fame not just in America but worldwide. He moved back to New York to be at the center of the art scene and resigned from Rutgers University in 1964 to concentrate on his painting. Lichtenstein used oil and Magna (early acrylic) paint in his best known works, such as Drowning Girl (1963), which was appropriated from the lead story in DC Comics’ Secret Hearts #83. (Drowning Girl now hangs in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.) Drowning Girl also features thick outlines, bold colors and Ben-Day dots, as if created by photographic reproduction. Of his own work Lichtenstein would say that the Abstract Expressionists “put things down on the canvas and responded to what they had done, to the color positions and sizes. My style looks completely different, but the nature of putting down lines pretty much is the same; mine just don’t come out looking calligraphic, like Pollock’s or Kline’s.”
Rather than attempt to reproduce his subjects, Lichtenstein’s work tackled the way in which the mass media portrays them. He would never take himself too seriously, however, saying: “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”. When Lichtenstein’s work was first exhibited, many art critics of the time challenged its originality. His work was harshly criticized as vulgar and empty. The title of a Life magazine article in 1964 asked, “Is He the Worst Artist in the U.S.?” Lichtenstein responded to such claims by offering responses such as the following: “The closer my work is to the original, the more threatening and critical the content. However, my work is entirely transformed in that my purpose and perception are entirely different. I think my paintings are critically transformed, but it would be difficult to prove it by any rational line of argument”. He discussed experiencing this heavy criticism in an interview with April Bernard and Mimi Thompson in 1986. Suggesting that it was at times difficult to be criticized, Lichtenstein said, “I don’t doubt when I’m actually painting, it’s the criticism that makes you wonder, it does.”
His most celebrated 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 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. It is one of his two notable large war-themed paintings. It was purchased by the Tate Gallery in 1966, after being exhibited at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1963, and (now at the Tate Modern) has remained in their collection ever since. Lichtenstein began experimenting with sculpture around 1964, demonstrating a knack for the form that was at odds with the insistent flatness of his paintings. For Head of Girl(1964), and Head with Red Shadow (1965), he collaborated with a ceramicist who sculpted the form of the head out of clay. Lichtenstein then applied a glaze to create the same sort of graphic motifs that he used in his paintings; the application of black lines and Ben-Day dots to three-dimensional objects resulted in a flattening of the form.
Most of Lichtenstein’s best-known works are relatively close, but not exact, copies of comic book panels, a subject he largely abandoned in 1965, though he would occasionally incorporate comics into his work in different ways in later decades. These panels were originally drawn by such comics artists as Jack Kirby and DC Comics artists Russ Heath, Tony Abruzzo, Irv Novick, and Jerry Grandenetti, who rarely received any credit. Jack Cowart, executive director of the Lichtenstein Foundation, contests the notion that Lichtenstein was a copyist, saying: “Roy’s work was a wonderment of the graphic formulae and the codification of sentiment that had been worked out by others. The panels were changed in scale, color, treatment, and in their implications. There is no exact copy.” However, some have been critical of Lichtenstein’s use of comic-book imagery and art pieces, especially insofar as that use has been seen as endorsement of a patronizing view of comics by the art mainstream; cartoonist Art Spiegelman commented that “Lichtenstein did no more or less for comics than Andy Warhol did for soup.”
Lichtenstein’s works based on enlarged panels from comic books engendered a widespread debate about their merits as art. Lichtenstein himself admitted, “I am nominally copying, but I am really restating the copied thing in other terms. In doing that, the original acquires a totally different texture. It isn’t thick or thin brushstrokes, it’s dots and flat colours and unyielding lines.” Eddie Campbell blogged that “Lichtenstein took a tiny picture, smaller than the palm of the hand, printed in four color inks on newsprint and blew it up to the conventional size at which ‘art’ is made and exhibited and finished it in paint on canvas.” Campbell even quoted Jack Cowart, Lichtenstein Foundation executive director who said “Roy’s work was a wonderment of the graphic formulae and the codification of sentiment … the panels were changed in scale, color, treatment, and in their implications. There is no exact copy.” With regard to Lichtenstein, Bill Griffith once said “There’s high art and there’s low art. And then there’s high art that can take low art, bring it into a high art context, appropriate it and elevate it into something else.” Although Lichtenstein’s comic-based work is now widely accepted, concerns are still expressed by critics who say Lichtenstein did not credit, pay any royalties to, or seek permission from the original artists or copyright holders. In an interview for a BBC Four documentary in 2013, Alastair Sooke asked the comic book artist Dave Gibbons if he considered Lichtenstein a plagiarist. Gibbons replied: “I would say ‘copycat’. In music for instance, you can’t just whistle somebody else’s tune or perform somebody else’s tune, no matter how badly, without somehow crediting and giving payment to the original artist. That’s to say, this is ‘WHAAM! by Roy Lichtenstein, after Irv Novick’.” Sooke himself maintains that “Lichtenstein transformed Novick’s artwork in a number of subtle but crucial ways.”
Journal founder, City University London lecturer and University College London PhD, Ernesto Priego notes that Lichtenstein’s failure to credit the original creators of his comic works was a reflection on the decision by National Periodical Publications, the predecessor of DC Comics, to omit any credit for their writers and artists:
Besides embodying the cultural prejudice against comic books as vehicles of art, examples like Lichtenstein’s appropriation of the vocabulary of comics highlight the importance of taking publication format in consideration when defining comics, as well as the political economy implied by specific types of historical publications, in this case the American mainstream comic book. To what extent was National Periodical Publications (later DC) responsible for the rejection of the roles of Kanigher and Novick as artists in their own right by not granting them full authorial credit on the publication itself?”
Furthermore, Campbell notes that there was a time when comic artists often declined attribution for their work. In an account published in 1998, Novick said that he had met Lichtenstein in the army in 1947 and, as his superior officer, had responded to Lichtenstein’s tearful complaints about the menial tasks he was assigned by recommending him for a better job. Jean-Paul Gabilliet has questioned this account, saying that Lichtenstein had left the army a year before the time Novick says the incident took place. Bart Beaty, noting that Lichtenstein had appropriated Novick for works such as Whaam! and Okay Hot-Shot, Okay!, says that Novick’s story “seems to be an attempt to personally diminish” the more famous artist. In 1966, Lichtenstein moved on from his much-celebrated imagery of the early 1960s, and began his Modern Paintings series, including over 60 paintings and accompanying drawings. Using his characteristic Ben-Day dots and geometric shapes and lines, he rendered incongruous, challenging images out of familiar architectural structures, patterns borrowed from Art Déco and other subtly evocative, often sequential, motifs. The Modern Sculptureseries of 1967–8 made reference to motifs from Art Déco architecture.
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 1970, Lichtenstein was commissioned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (within its Art and Technology program developed between 1967 and 1971) to make a film. With the help of Universal Film Studios, the artist conceived of, and produced, Three Landscapes, a film of marine landscapes, directly related to a series of collages with landscape themes he created between 1964 and 1966. Although Lichtenstein had planned on producing 15 short films, the three-screen installation – made with New York-based independent filmmaker Joel Freedman – turned out to be the artist’s only venture into the medium. Also in 1970, Lichtenstein purchased a former carriage house in Southampton, Long Island, built a studio on the property, and spent the rest of the 1970s in relative seclusion. In the 1970s and 1980s, his style began to loosen and he expanded on what he had done before. Lichtenstein began a series of Mirrors paintings in 1969. By 1970, while continuing on the Mirrors series, he started work on the subject of entablatures. The Entablatures consisted of a first series of paintings from 1971–72, followed by a second series in 1974-76, and the publication of a series of relief prints in 1976. He produced a series of “Artists Studios” which incorporated elements of his previous work. A notable example being Artist’s Studio, Look Mickey (1973, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis) which incorporates five other previous works, fitted into the scene.
During a trip to Los Angeles in 1978, Lichtenstein was fascinated by lawyer Robert Rifkind’s collection of German Expressionist prints and illustrated books. He began to produce works that borrowed stylistic elements found in Expressionist paintings. The White Tree (1980) evokes lyric Der Blaue Reiter landscapes, while Dr. Waldmann (1980) recalls Otto Dix’s Dr. Mayer-Hermann (1926). Small colored-pencil drawings were used as templates for woodcuts, a medium favored by Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein, as well as Dix and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Also in the late 1970s, Lichtenstein’s style was replaced with more surreal works such as Pow Wow (1979, Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst, Aachen). A major series of Surrealist-Pop paintings from 1979–81 is based on Native American themes. These works range from Amerind Figure (1981), a stylized life-size sculpture reminiscent of a streamlined totem pole in black-patinated bronze, to the monumental wool tapestry Amerind Landscape (1979). The “Indian” works took their themes, like the other parts of the Surrealist series, from contemporary art and other sources, including books on American Indian design from Lichtenstein’s small library.
Lichtenstein’s Still Life paintings, sculptures and drawings, which span from 1972 through the early 1980s, cover a variety of motifs and themes, including the most traditional such as fruit, flowers, and vases. In his Reflectionseries, produced between 1988 and 1990, Lichtenstein reused his own motifs from previous works. Interiors (1991–1992) is a series of works depicting banal domestic environments inspired by furniture ads the artist found in telephone books or on billboards. Having garnered inspiration from the monochromatic prints of Edgar Degas featured in a 1994 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the motifs of his Landscapes in the Chinese Style series are formed with simulated Benday dots and block contours, rendered in hard, vivid color, with all traces of the hand removed. The nude is a recurring element in Lichtenstein’s work of the 1990s, such as inCollage for Nude with Red Shirt (1995). In addition to paintings and sculptures, Lichtenstein also made over 300 prints, mostly in screenprinting.
In 1969, Lichtenstein was commissioned by Gunter Sachs to create Composition and Leda and the Swan, for the collector’s Pop Art bedroom suite at the Palace Hotel in St. Moritz. In the late 1970s and during the 1980s, Lichtenstein received major commissions for works in public places: the sculptures Lamp (1978) in St. Mary’s, Georgia; Mermaid (1979) in Miami Beach; the 26 feet tall Brushstrokes in Flight (1984, moved in 1998) at Port Columbus International Airport; the five-storey high Mural with Blue Brushstroke (1984–85) at the Equitable Center, New York; and El Cap de Barcelona (1992) in Barcelona. In 1994, Lichtenstein created the 53-foot-long, enamel-on-metal Times Square Mural that now hovers over pedestrians in the Times Square subway station. In 1977, he was commissioned by BMW to paint a Group 5 Racing Version of the BMW 320i for the third installment in the BMW Art Car Project. The DreamWorks Records logo was his last completed project. “I’m not in the business of doing anything like that (a corporate logo) and don’t intend to do it again,” allows Lichtenstein. “But I know Mo Ostin and David Geffen and it seemed interesting.”
In 1949 Lichtenstein married Isabel Wilson, who previously had been married to Ohio artist Michael Sarisky. However, the brutal upstate winters took a toll on Lichtenstein and his wife, after he began teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego in 1958. The couple sold the family home in Highland Park, New Jersey, in 1963 and divorced in 1965. Lichtenstein married his second wife, Dorothy Herzka, in 1968. In 1966, they rented a house in Southampton, New York that Larry Rivers had bought around the corner from his own house. Three years later they bought a 1910 carriage house facing the ocean on Gin Lane. From 1970 until his death, Lichtenstein split his time between Manhattan and Southampton. He also had a home on Captiva Island. Lichtenstein died of pneumonia in 1997 at New York University Medical Center, where he had been hospitalized for several weeks. He was survived by his second wife, Dorothy Herzka, and by his sons, David and Mitchell, from his first marriage.
- 1977 Skowhegan Medal for Painting, Skowhegan School, Skowhegan, Maine.
- 1979 American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York.
- 1989 American Academy in Rome, Rome, Italy. Artist in residence.
- 1991 Creative Arts Award in Painting, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts.
- 1993 Amici de Barcelona, from Mayor Pasqual Maragall, L’Alcalde de Barcelona.
- 1995 Kyoto Prize, Inamori Foundation, Kyoto, Japan.
- 1995 National Medal of the Arts, Washington D.C.
Lichtenstein received numerous Honorary Doctorate degrees from, among others, the George Washington University (1996), Bard College, Royal College of Art (1993), Ohio State University (1987), Southampton College (1980), and the California Institute of the Arts (1977). He also served on the board of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
- October, 27, 1923
- Manhattan, New York City, NY
- September, 29, 1997
- Manhattan, New York City, NY