In 1964, when Life Magazine ran a featured article with the headline, “Is He the Worst Artist in the U.S.?” Pop Artist Roy Lichtenstein knew for sure that he had arrived as an important figure. If any group of individuals ever took stock in the concept of, “any press is good press,” none did so more than the founders of the American Pop Art movement during the 1960s. As a matter of fact, during this period of turbulent social reconstruction in America, Pop Artists such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein could receive no greater endorsement than to be deemed uncomfortable by the mass media or any other part of “the establishment.”
Just as young Americans were leading the charge for social and political change in the 1960s, Pop Artists were also rebelling − against the expectations of critics, collectors and mainstream America. Even against what was becoming the new normal in Abstract Expressionism. As Jackson Pollock and William de Kooning gained fame for their unique processes, others followed and suddenly Contemporary Art was viewed as a collaboration of process and result. In response, the founders of Pop Art turned away from such acts of raw emotive expression splattered onto canvas strewn about the floor.
In bucking the trend, Pop Art shifted momentum from hot to cool, from deep waves of emotion to shallow puddles of reflection.
So, what could be furthest from the high-minded creations of heavy handed Abstract Expressionists? Roy Lichtenstein’s answer was to embrace commercial “low art” forms, including a favorite from childhood, scenes from comic books. What began as direct reproductions of comic strips eventually morphed into the artist’s iconic style.
Just as Andy Warhol shocked the world with his highly stylized versions of celebrity portraits and consumer goods, Roy Lichtenstein’s work was controversial for the nature of his subjects, which no doubt appeared unworthy of large scale Contemporary Art space, at least at first.
Roy Lichtenstein’s experiments paid off. “Why?” is a question that some continue to ask, while others deem it absurd. Yet, there are a number of good reasons that the artist had a fighter’s chance of being successful in paving new Pop Art roads. For one, he was a legitimate professional artist and a professor at New Jersey’s Rutgers University when he began developing his unique Pop Art style. The fact that he was a classically schooled artist who had also worked as a commercial artist weighed in his favor. These qualities helped Lichtenstein to take calculated risks. After all, he had credentials, but more importantly, he possessed confidence, vision and a calculated reduction of ego.
Perhaps most importantly, Roy Lichtenstein had the courage to take artistic risks, to see where these concepts would lead. It’s not hard to imagine that the artist was initially bluffing, simply putting out full sized comic book renderings to draw a reaction, to learn if his actions would be considered outlandish and controversial. In time, however, it became evident that Roy Lichtenstein fell in love with the simplistic style − the Ben-Day dots, bold black lines and primary colors that brought soap opera-styled subjects front and center.
Whaam!, which the artist painted in 1963, from an issue of DC Comics’ All-American Men of War, is perhaps his best known work. In 1964, the artist contributed a large scale mural of a laughing woman for the N.Y. State Pavilion of the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. NYC was consistently a central figure for Lichtenstein. It’s where he was born, where he spent the majority of life, and where New York dealer Leo Castelli showcased his work over a 30-year span.
In Roy Lichtenstein’s later career, he received a number of large-scale commissions for public installations, including “Brushstrokes in Flight,” a 25-foot high sculpture for the International Airport in Columbus, Ohio and a porcelain enamel mural, six-foot tall and 53-foot long, created for Manhattan’s Times Square subway station, near the main entrance at 42nd Street and Broadway. The Times Square mural was completed in 1994, three years prior to Roy Lichtenstein’s death.