If Elvis Presley was the king of Rock and Roll in the post-war America, definitely, Roy Fox Lichtenstein, or simply Roy Lichtenstein was the American king of Pop Art. He was an ordinary man with an extraordinary ability to transform chewing gum wrapper characters into salable art. He was an ordinary artist from an upper middle class family, blessed with an uncanny ability to convert comic strips into a gallery-worthy art.
Born in Pre-World War II America, on October 27, 1923, at Manhattan, New York City, Roy Lichtenstein was a dabbler in many ways. He often resorted to teaching and painting simultaneously to support himself. After finishing his public school in New York, he enrolled for Franklin School for Boys, Manhattan at the age of 12. After graduation, he enrolled with the Art Students League of New York, under the tutelage of the American painter, Reginald Marsh. Roy then migrated from New York to study Fine Arts and a studio course at the Ohio State University. His education here was interrupted, however, for three years (1943-46) during his service in the Army around the World War II. Once back, Lichtenstein joined the graduation program of Ohio State and even occasionally served as an art teacher for the subsequent decade. In 1949, the artist completed his M.F.A. from the Ohio State University, and the same year, he tied knot with Isabel Wilson.
In 1951, Roy Lichtenstein held his first solo exhibition at Carlebach Gallery, New York. The same year, the artist migrated to Cleveland for six years, working sometimes as a window decorator and sometimes as an artisan. During this phase, Lichtenstein’s paintings kept swinging between ‘Cubism’ and ‘Expressionism.’ In 1954, his first son was born, followed by the second in 1956. The artist returned to New York in 1957 and resumed teaching. At this time, ‘Abstract Expressionism’ marked his paintings. In 1958, he joined as a teacher at the State University of New York at Oswego. He started teaching at Rutgers University in 1960, where his romance with Proto-pop Imagery rekindled.
Roy Lichtenstein’s life in itself was unremarkable, almost bordering on the mundane, without any major tragedies or traumas as were associated with many of his calling. Even his skills were not something legendary. What set him apart, however, was his way of taking commercial art and putting it before viewers, as the advertisers wanted them to see. During 1961-65, Roy Lichtenstein indulged in the cartoon oriented Pop Art. He blew up the small boxes of DC comics into large prints, where the use of “Benday Dots,” first time in “Look Mickey (1961),” was distinctly noticeable. The same year (1961), an American art dealer, Leo Castelli, started exhibiting Roy’s works in his New York gallery, followed by the artist’s solo show there in 1962. Fame was Lichtenstein’s from here. Magna paints, thick borders, bold colors, and Benday Dots, became the identities of Roy’s works, such as in “Drowning Girl (1963).” In 1964, the artist took a break from teaching, in order to focus on his artistry. His marriage with Isabel was over in 1965, followed by his remarriage with Dorothy Herzka in 1968.
Alternating between ‘Pop Imagery’ and shameless kitsch promotion, Roy’s blown-up, larger than life “Whaam! (1963)” was an iconic commercial bull in the until date conservative gallery, China Shop. Lichtenstein made every American to no more consider the potential ‘Comic Art’ as lowbrow. He, in fact, made the world understand that the perspective of treating commercial art as “low,” was only indicative of insular thinking, rather than the narrow expression of the art form itself.
During his lifetime, Roy Lichtenstein was hailed as the torchbearer of modern ‘American Symbolism,’ who took art into the mainstream, out of the confines of its rigid high society definition. The artist borrowed heavily from comic strips, super heroes, and commercial icons, but managed to put them into meaningful concepts. His art works did not represent merely enlarged copies, but were also connotative of a different take on the American outlook towards its commercial icons. Roy Lichtenstein is known more for his sense of design, rather than for his sense of beauty. His style, and form of image placement, made the viewers see familiar objects in a new light – a light that made kitsch fashionable and fashion kitsch. During 1970s-80s, Roy started producing the sequels of his earlier works, such as “Artist’s Studio, Look Mickey (1973).” ‘Surrealism’ started reflecting in his works by late 1970s, such as in “Pow Wow (1979).”
His iconic sculptures, like “Head (1992),” screen prints, and the cover design for Universal Studios made him the undisputed king of the commercial art. Lichtenstein’s renditions made him the darling of the art galleries. On September 29, 1997, he succumbed to pneumonia, at Manhattan, New York City. Despite the lack of brilliance of an accomplished artist, Roy Lichtenstein will always be known as the icon, who made commercial art, avant-garde, a man turned comic books as fashionable as the Mona Lisa is.