INTERVIEW: ROY LICHTENSTEIN

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COMIC BOOK GENIUS

One of the founding fathers and leading figures of the Pop Art movement, Roy Lichtenstein is mainly known for his paintings of enlarged comic book scenes. Yet he did many other things as well, including sculptures such as “The Head,” which was unveiled at the 1992 Olympic Games and still adorns the city of Barcelona. while he regards Picasso as his main inspiration, he never dared comparing his work to that of the Spanish master.

I pressed the fire control... and ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky.
— Roy Lichtenstein

Roy Lichtenstein was in his late 30s when, in 1961, he walked into new york’s Castelli Gallery with half a dozen of his latest works under his arm. he did not expect much of his meeting with gallery owner leo Castelli, as his artistic career till then had not been very fruitful. he mainly taught art to provide for his family. to his great delight however, Castelli adored his cartoon-like paintings and preferred them over the work of another aspiring artist who had passed by a week before. his name was andy Warhol.

as we all know today, Castelli’s rejection did not dent Warhol’s path to glory. he went on to produce his 1962 Campbell soup cans series that launched him into the heart of the contemporary art scene. lichtenstein followed suit, as Castelli in 1962 organized his first solo show, which was sold out before the gallery even opened its doors. lichtenstein and Warhol were to become the Godfathers of the pop art movement, which had started in britain only to hit it big in the US.

Although the two artists knew each other (both lived in new york and their work regularly featured in collective art shows), they were not particularly close and they never worked together. it did not help that their personalities could not be more different. trendy-man Warhol, first with his wild white locks, then with silver-haired wig, loved the limelight and was an all too familiar face on the new york party scene.

Lichtenstein, on the other hand, looked even in his younger years more like an accountant than an artist. at one of his first exhibitions he appeared in respectable tuxedo and bowtie. he was a family man who generally avoided attention and, unlike Warhol, was quite humble about his work. he never hid his admiration for picasso, yet never dared compare his work to that of the Spanish master. once, while doing his military service in europe at the end of WWii, he passed picasso’s studio on rue des Grands augustins, yet was too shy to enter.

“Picasso has always been such a huge influence that i thought when i started the cartoon paintings that i was getting away from picasso, and even my cartoons of picasso were done almost to rid myself of his influence,” he once said. “i don’t think that i’m over his influence, but they probably don’t look like picassos. picasso himself would probably have thrown up looking at my pictures.”

It was thanks to his children that lichtenstein started painting his cartoon-inspired paintings. For three years, he had dabbled in cubism and abstract expressionism, when his son pointed at his Walt disney comic book and said “i bet you can’t paint as good as that, eh, dad?”

The challenge resulted in “look Mickey” (1961), lichtenstein’s first work using bright colors, sharp outlines and benday dots, as seen in printed work. the picture shows donald duck and Mickey Mouse fishing. donald thinks he caught a fish and cries: “look Mickey, i’ve hooked a big one.” Mickey tries not to laugh, seeing donald’s hook stuck to his jacket.

That same year, Lichtenstein produced six similar works based on gum wrappers and cartoons, with which he entered the Castelli Gallery in 1961. one year later, he hit it big with the 1962 sold-out show which consisted of the now famous series of paintings inspired by the “All-American Men of War” comic books, including: “Blam,” “The Kiss,” “Takka Takka” and “Live Ammo.”

Picasso himself would probably have thrown up looking at my pictures!
— Roy Lichtenstein

More so than “look Mickey,” these works are characterized by the use of bright colors, thick outlines, text balloons and benday dots, thus to enhance the illusion that they are photographic reproductions of the original drawings. lichtenstein however, never exactly copied the original. he would always accentuate colors and alter both setting and text. he always started with a drawing, which he then projected on the canvas to outline the work in pencil.

“Usually i begin things through a drawing, so a lot of things are worked out in the drawing,” he said. “but even then, i still allow for and want to make changes. 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”.

His sudden and rather unexpected success, allowed Lichtenstein to stop teaching and in 1963, he produced some of his most well- known works, including “drowning Girl” and “Whaam.” the latter shows an fighter jet firing at another plane which results in an enormous red and yellow explosion with the word “Whaam!” the caption reads: “i pressed the fire control... and ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky...”

Lichtenstein’s career too blazed off. although life Magazine in 1964 stirred up the debate by asking if he was “the worst artist in america?” lichtenstein went from strength to strength. in 1966, he represented the uS at the venice biennale. in 1965, the Stedelijk Museum in amsterdam organized his first retrospective ever and two years later the pasadena art Museum in California organized his first retrospective in the uS. in 1968, time Magazine featured his painting of Robert Kennedy on the cover.

From the 1970s onward lichtenstein’s style changed. he loosely remained true to his comic book style, yet became less cartoon- ish. in 1979 for example, he produced “pow Wow,” which shows references to both american indian art and – who else – picasso. later, he painted landscapes and interiors in reference to de Stijl and Matisse. he even made four paintings in honor of the abstract expressionist de kooning. thus lichtenstein traveled through art history with a pop art brush.

His became a lucrative style as well. in 1989, Christies sold his 1963 painting “torpedo... los!” for $5.5 million, which was then a record sum for a work by a living artist. however, with the international art market becoming increasingly speculative, that record has since been broken numerous times.

In addition to painting, lichtenstein produced a series of sculptures using metal and plastic, including “the Mermaid” at Miami beach and “brushstrokes in Flight” at Columbus ohio international airport. inspired by the work of antoni Gaudí, he also created the over 20-meter-high “head” for the barcelona olympic Games. Made of ceramic tiles, the sculpture stands at the former naval yard from where Christopher Columbus once sailed to america.

Lichtenstein died on September 30, 1997, at the age of 74. his works remains in hot demand and is regularly on display. in 2010, his works are for example shown at the national art Gallery in Washington, at the Gagosian Gallery in New York, in Museo triennale in Milan and in Museum Ludwug in Koln. Finally, Warhol in 1976 eternalized Lichtenstein by creating a silkscreen portrait of his fellow pop artist.

TEXT BY PETER SPEETJENS

ArtEli Rezkallah