Roy Lichtenstein is the second most famous pop art painter in the world, after Andy Warhol. He is best known for taking images from comic strips and blowing them up to huge formats. More than any other artist, Roy Lichtenstein elevated comics into an art form, something he is both praised and reviled for by comic book fans.
Lichtenstein was born in 1923 as the son of a Jewish real estate broker in New York City. In high school he attended summer classes at the Art Students League of New York, where Reginald Marsh was his tutor. After studying fine arts at Ohio State University, he worked as an art teacher, holding his first exhibitions in the 1950s. From 1961 on he started working in his familiar style, adapting comic and cartoon characters in his paintings. He picked out certain images that fascinated him and which had a sense of irony over them. Among the biggest influences on his work were Alan Kaprow, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Walt Disney and Hergé. The artist received many honorary decorates and was inaugurated into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1979. In 1968 he made two paintings ordered by Time Magazine: one depicting US presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, the other 'The Gun in America'. Later in his career Lichtenstein started working in a more abstract style and became more socially conscious. His painting 'Save Our Planet, Save Our Water' (1971) made a stance against pollution, while 'Against Apartheid' (1983) protested against apartheid in South Africa. During the 1988 presidential elections he designed an election poster for U.S. Presidential Candidate Michael Dukakis, who despite his efforts lost. One of his final projects before his death in 1997 was designing the logo for Dreamworks Records.
While Lichtenstein became world-famous in the 1960s, he also attracted criticism. Some dismissed him as a mere plagiarist. Few of the original comic artists he borrowed images from were ever credited, left alone asked permission. In 2013 Rian Hughes started the Image Duplicator Project, which tries to re-appropriate Lichtenstein's images "into something interesting and original". One of the involved artists was Dave Gibbons, whose work 'WHAAT?' spoofs Lichtenstein's 'WHAAM!'. Russ Heath, one of the artists whose work was "plagiarized" by Lichtenstein, made a bitter comic strip about his feelings towards the matter titled 'Hero in Action: Bottle of Wine' (2014), which was inked and colourized by Darwyn Cooke. Another common criticism directed at Lichtenstein is that some feel he just created an even bigger divide between comics and actual "art". Art critics still deem the original comics as inferior pulp, while regarding his copies as artistic masterpieces. Lichtenstein didn't help matters much by often clumsily tracing and mimicking the original drawings. Whether this approach was a sign of his personal lack of drawing skills or done on purpose, it still contributed to the common prejudice that comics artists are basically incompetent draftsmen. All this while the original comic panels often look far more skilled than Lichtenstein's imitations. Art Spiegelman in particular felt that thanks to Lichtenstein the art mainstream merely patronized comics, rather than reappreciate them. As he put it: "Lichtenstein did no more or less for comics than Andy Warhol did for soup." Spiegelman also made a comic strip, 'High Art Lowdown', about his issues concerning the matter. Accusations of plagiarism continued when Lichtenstein devoted the latter part of his career adapting famous paintings by Paul Cézanne, Vincent Van Gogh, Leonardo Da Vinci, Carlo Carrà, Piet Mondriaan and Pablo Picasso into pop art reinterpretations.
M-maybe by Roy Lichtenstein, and the original from Girls' Romances #110 by Tony Abruzzo
In Lichtenstein's defense: his "imitations" were never completely identical to the source material. He purposefully changed lines, colours, speech balloons and the composition in a subtle way. The original size of the images were enlargened and he sometimes used only a tiny detail rather than the entire picture. The close-ups are often so extreme that the viewer can see the raster points and Ben-Day dots of the original comic book page. Lichtenstein also mocked his own public image at times. In 'Image Duplicator' (1963) a close-up of two eyes lifted from Jack Kirby and Bruno Premiani's 'X-Men' received a new speech balloon. The character in the image now asks "What do you know about my image duplicator?" 'Self-Portrait' (1978) depicts the painter with a mirror for a head, acknowledging that he is basically a copycat. In 1964 Lichtenstein was invited to a meeting of the National Cartoonists Society, where he defended himself as just "being a guy who makes a living". Mort Walker adapted the experience into a two-page comic strip, 'Grand Theft Lichtenstein Caper of 1964', and took a sympathetic view towards the painter. Other graphic artists who admired the pop-art legend are Hergé, Charles Burns, Guy Peellaert, Bill Griffith, Peter Haars, Gal and Ismael Álvarez.
Among Lichtenstein's source material were Jack Abel stories from DC's 'Star Spangled War Stories' and 'Our Fighting Forces' ('Live Ammo (Ha! Ha! Ha!)', 1962; 'Crak!', 1963 and 'Torpedo... Los!', 1963), Tony Abruzzo stories from DC's 'Girl's Romances' ('Drowning Girl', 1962; 'Hopeless', 1963; 'In the Car', 1963; 'Thinking of Him', 1963; 'No Thank You!', 1964; 'Oh Jeff...I Love You Too... But...', 1964; 'Sleeping Girl', 1964; 'Ohhh... Alright...', 1964 and 'M-Maybe', 1965), a Ross Andru story from DC's 'All-American Men of War' ('Bratatat!', 1963), Carl Barks' 'Donald Duck' ('Reflections: Portrait of a Duck', 1989), Martin Branner's 'Winnie Winkle' ('Engagement Ring', 1961), Ernie Bushmiller's 'Nancy and Sluggo' ('Reflections on 'Nancy', 1989), Hy Eisman ('Girl in Window', 1963), a Myron Fass story from 'Tales of Terror' ('The Kiss', 1961), Ted Galindo ('Forget It! Forget Me!', 1962; 'Kiss II'; 1962, 'Kiss III', 1962; 'Masterpiece', 1962 and 'I Know How You Must Feel, Brad...', 1963), a Dick Giordano story from Fawcett's 'Strange Suspense Stories' ('Brushstrokes', 1965) and 'Billy the Kid' ('Foot and Hand', 1964), Jerry Grandenetti stories from 'All-American Men of War' ('Jet Pilot', 1962; 'Brattata' 1962; 'Bratatat', 1963; 'Okay! Hot Shot, Okay!'; 1963 and 'As I Opened Fire', 1964 ) and 'Our Fighting Forces' ('Arrrrrff!', 1962), Bob Grant and Bob Totten's 'Mickey Mouse' ('Look Mickey!', 1961), a Russ Heath story from 'Star Spangled War Stories' ('Blam', 1962 ), Hergé ('Tintin Reading', 1993), Milton Caniff's 'Steve Canyon' ('Mr. Bellamy', 1962), Jack Kirby and Bruno Premiani's 'X-Men' ('Image Duplicator', 1963), Joe Kubert stories from 'Our Army at War' ('Live Ammo (Blang)', 1962; 'Live Ammo (Tzing!)', 1962; 'Live Ammo (Take Cover), 1962; 'Scared Witless', 1962; 'GRRRRRRRRRRRRR', 1965), Irv Novick stories from 'All-American Men of War' ('Whaam!', 1963) and 'Our Fighting Forces' ('Flatten -- Sand fleas!', 1962; 'Sweet Dreams, Baby!', 1965), William Overgard's 'Steve Roper' ('I Can See the Whole Room! ... and There's Nobody in It!', 1961), Arthur Peddy ('The Sound of Music', 1964), H.G. Peter ('Reflections: Wonder Woman', 1989), Jim Pike ('Good Morning, Darling', 1964; 'V-Vicki, I Thought I Heard Your Voice', 1964), John Romita stories from 'Heart Throbs' ('Knock-Knock', 1961), 'Secret Hearts' ('Crying Girl', 1964) and 'Girls' Romances' ('We Rose up Slowly (1964)'), Bud Sagendorf's 'Popeye' ('Popeye', 1961 and 'Wimpy (Tweet)', 1961), Mike Sekowsky stories from 'Girl's Romances' ('It Is... With Me!', 1963 and 'Happy Tears', 1964) and 'Justice League of America' ('Mad Scientist', 1963; 'Eccentric Mad Scientist', 1965), George Tuska's 'Buck Rogers' ('One Thing's Sure... He's Still Got Those Emeralds!', 1961) and Chic Young's 'Blondie' ('Two Paintings: Dagwood', 1983; 'Reflections: Sunday Morning', 1989; 'Yoo-Hoo', 1989 and 'Reflections on the Scream', 1990).
It might be a stretch to name Lichtenstein a comic artist, seeing that he seemingly took images from other comics rather than make a comic strip himself. Yet he did make use of some narrative sequences throughout his career. Some of his early works were inspired by imagery found in instruction guides. They all show an everyday action depicted in two sequences. 'Bread in Bag' (1961) shows how to put bread in a bag, while 'Step-on Can with Leg' (1961) demonstrates how to operate a step-on can. 'Girl/Spray Can' (1963) is a similar two-sequential drawing based on an advertising for hair spray. Some of Lichtenstein's works also make use of sequential imagery, but the images themselves stay the same, only the colours change, much like a painting by Andy Warhol: 'Castelli Handshake Poster' (1962), 'The Collars' (1963) and 'Turkey Shopping Bag' (1964). 'Woman: Sunlight, Moonlight' (1996) shows two female busts in mirrorview, but with different hair colours, separated by a frame line. 'Like New' (1962) shows two panels depicting the contours of a stamp. In the first panel we see a white stain, in the second the stain has been removed.
Lichtenstein used more variation in other works. The 'Eddie Diptych' (1962), based on a romance comic by Ted Galindo, makes use of both a descriptive panel to inform the reader about the events that happened before, as well as a confrontational scene depicting a mother and her daughter. A similar work is 'We Rose Up Slowly' (1964), lifted from John Romita's 'Girl's Romances'. This painting shows a descriptive panel in the left corner and an image of a couple in embrace in the right. 'Live Ammo (Take Cover) Panel 1 of 4' (1962) reproduces two panels from the war comic series 'Our Army at War 121' in a diptych. The first image shows a soldier yelling 'Take cover!'. The second image shows a close-up of his face, while he wonders where his enemies might be hiding. Both panels have the lines 'Live Ammo' written over them. Three successive images can be seen in 'As I Opened Fire' (1964), which shows three close-ups of artillery, copied from a Jerry Grandenetti story from 'All-American Men of War'.
Lichtenstein also made a few art works with sequential imagery that didn't rely on other's people creativity. 'Cow Triptych: Cow Going Abstract' (1974) shows a cow gradually transforming into an abstract figure. In 'Portrait Triptych' (1974) he did the same with the portrait of a girl, while 'Bull Plates' (1989) turns a bull into an abstract image. Though, for completist sake, it must be said that even this idea wasn't entirely new. In 1946 Pablo Picasso already made a series of sequences which show the gradual transformation of a bull into an abstract work. Whether Lichtenstein was aware of this work is unknown, but his version did it in only three successive images, rather than Picasso's twelve.