Artist Spotlight: Roy Lichtenstein
Before finishing his undergraduate education at Ohio State University, Roy Lichtenstein (1923–1997) was drafted for Army service. Through a series of reassignments, Lichtenstein trained as a draftsman stateside and by the end of 1944 his unit was shipped to Europe. There, Lichtenstein took every spare moment, in between performing combat operations, to study the works of artists such as Paul Cézanne, Georges Rouault, and Francisco Goya at the Louvre and other French, British, and German institutions. Upon his discharge in 1946, the young artist returned to OSU to complete his B.F.A. and continued on to pursue a graduate degree in Fine and Applied Arts. Along with his extensive coursework in history, criticism, and multi-media execution, Lichtenstein composed a thesis on various modern artists including Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, and Pablo Picasso. It was during this period that Lichtenstein began working in series and exploring “sustained themes.” Though Lichtenstein wouldn’t develop his signature iconography for another decade, his interest in “paraphrasing” common images began to flourish. The academically dominant Abstract Expressionists despised objective representation, labelling the grand figurative styles of the nineteenth century cheap and hackneyed. Lichtenstein, however, recognized that despite their lack of individuality, these art forms remained particularly abundant in the ‘lowbrow’ visuality of the everyday. He then sought to tease out the intersections of representation and abstraction that could imbue images with cultural salience.
In 1950, a friend provided Lichtenstein with a book on the Bayeux Tapestry. A landmark work in the development of sequential narrative art, the tapestry demonstrates a grandiose rhetorical dramatization, designed for an illiterate mass audience. As one of the earliest examples of popular media accommodating viewers of the lowest common denominator, the tapestry provided an ideal test subject for the artist’s burgeoning inclinations. Over the next few years, Lichtenstein fabricated a series of “humorous variations” on the historical painting genre. As illustrated by St. Macarius Before His Monastery (1951), Lichtenstein began depicting medieval narrative icons, such as knights and saints, in a simplistic, Cubist style, quietly alluding to traditions of lore and mythology. The subject matter proved fruitful for the artist as Knight on Horseback (1951) was awarded first prize in sculpture at the Ohio State Fair and his woodcut, To Battle (1950), both took first prize in the fair’s graphics category and won the Brooklyn Museum’s museum purchase award upon its showing at the “Fifth National Print Annual Exhibition” in 1951. Lichtenstein’s interest in the subject of folklore eventually led to his study of the “American knight,” materializing in his naïve renderings of cowboys on the western frontier, and revolutionary war heroes, as seen in Washington Crossing the Delaware (1951). These themes were particularly instructive for Lichtenstein as they offered a roadmap for a rigorous conceptual treatment of popular culture.
In defiance of his predecessors’ insistence on originality, he found that replicating familiar identities and images allowed for his “detachment” from the formal restraints of “serious subject matter.” This made way for his critical consideration of the types of simplified representations exemplified by comic books, that were themselves unintentional derivations of ‘high art’ forms. Having identified through his ‘historical’ painting exercise the process by which “overuse” renders a reference iconic, Lichtenstein discovered that he could mobilize the aesthetically corrosive effects of popular media by supercharging its content with irony and self-awareness.
Rose, Bernice. “The Drawings of Roy Lichtenstein.” Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1987.
Berman, Avis. “Roy Lichtenstein Biography.” Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, 2017, lichtensteinfoundation.org/biography/.
Glueck, Grace. “A Pop Artist’s Fascination With the First Americans.” The New York Times, 23 Dec. 2005.
St. Macarius Before His Monastery
Watercolor, India ink, and metallic paint on paper
Signed lower right sheet; retains Angus Whyte Fine Arts label frame verso
Composition/sheet: 12″ x 17.75″; Frame: 21.25″ x 27″; (Composition/sheet: 30 x 45 cm)
Provenance: Private Collection, Los Angeles, California (acquired directly from the artist); Private Collection, Montecito, California (acquired directly from the above, 1998)
Literature: Roy Lichtenstein: das Frühwerk, 1942-1960. E. Busche. 1988. #215.
May 19, 2019 Modern Art and Design Auction
Washington Crossing the Delaware
Wax pencil on paper
Signed lower left in composition; retains Angus Whyte Fine Arts label frame verso
Sheet: 9.375″ x 12.5″; Frame: 18.75″ x 21.5″; (Sheet: 24 x 32 cm)
Provenance: Private Collection, Los Angeles, Califronia (acquired directly from the artist); Private Collection, Montecito, California (acquired directly from the above, 1998)
Literature: Roy Lichtenstein: das Frühwerk, 1942-1960. E. Busche. 1988. #219.
May 19, 2019 Modern Art and Design Auction