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Southampton's 20th Century Influencers: Roy Lichtenstein, Pop Art Groundbreaker

Updated: Sep 1, 2022


 
“Self-Portrait at an Easel,” 1951-52. Credit: Parrish Art Museum, Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

In 1952, writing in ARTnews, Fairfield Porter hails the 29-year-old Roy Lichtenstein as “a young newcomer” to the art world though, at the time, Abstract Expressionism reigns supreme as a style. With its emphasis on the flow of thick paint in a spontaneous gesture originating in the artist’s soul and moving through the hand to the brush and the canvas, an Abstract Expressionist painting is viewed as a revelation of the creator’s authentic identity.

“Fairfield Porter” 1957. Credit: John Jonas Gruen

So it is with remarkable prescience that Porter welcomes Lichtenstein precisely for the way he (quote) “spreads one flat color next to another and lets it alone. It always works,” adds Porter, “he is a natural.” (end quote) It will be another two years before the term Pop Art will gain currency and another decade before Lichtenstein, nearly 40, will be recognized as a leading proponent of Pop, validating Porter’s enthusiasm. “Roy got the hand out of art, and put the brain in,” was how artist Larry Rivers described Lichtestein’s influence. Interestingly for us, Lichtenstein, Porter and Rivers all had homes in Southampton.

“Roy Lichtenstein” 1940s. Credit: Roy Lichtenstein Foundation Archives

Long before he became an art world celebrity, as a teenager Lichtenstein was painting, sketching and experimenting artistically, sure that he wanted to become an artist. Born in New York City in 1923 into a comfortable Jewish family, he is raised in the upper-middle-class precincts of the city’s West Side. In the summer of 1939, because his private secondary school offers no art courses, he attends classes at the Art Students League. An avid jazz fan, he often attends concerts at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.


Main Building, University Hall, Ohio State University

In the fall of 1940 Lichtenstein enters Ohio State University, where studio courses and a degree in fine arts are offered.

Students, professor in art studio, c. 1960. Credit: Scripps College, Claremont College

There he is strongly influenced by instructor Hoyt L. Sherman and his perception-based approach to art. Sherman impressed on his students that vision is more an optical process than a narrative or emotional experience. What is important is not the subject, he stresses–which should be as emptied of meaning as possible–but the way it presents itself, the purely optical experience. Lichtenstein will credit Sherman as the person who showed him how to see. If this all sounds very cerebral, it is because Lichtenstein is, throughout his career, a seeker, a rejecter of received ideas on how to make art and what art really is. The brain, as Larry Rivers pointed out, is always at work and the viewer, too, is challenged to use his brain in response. For a man often described as socially shy and punctilious in his work, the excitement he will generate with his art will certainly owe much to the mold-breaking methods, materials and subjects he chooses to use.

“Roy Lichtenstein in his Columbus, Ohio studio” 1949. Photographer Unknown

But it is not just his technical and material innovations that account for the enthusiasm his work inspires during a period of artistic ferment. It is what many have described as the playfulness of his approach–the whimsy, humor and sometimes ambiguous irony that make people smile and reveal a bemused attitude toward the world.

“Washington Crossing the Delaware” 1851 by Emanuel Leutze, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Lichtenstein is willing to laugh at certain cherished events in American history and offers his version of Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware, which had been painted in heroic style by Emanuel Leutze in 1851.

“Washington Crossing the Delaware” 1951. Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

Rendered with the faux naivete of children’s art, it strips the event of its grandeur and portrays Washington as a guy in a funny hat.

“The Musician” by Roy Lichtenstein, 1948, Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

In his own self-portrait of 1951, Lichtenstein, too, is seen in a funny hat, evidence of something quite rare in an artist, a willingness to laugh at himself. And is that a hat that crowns his funny musician of 1948? Long before he becomes famous, he offers this tongue-in-cheek advice to a friend who receives one of his works as a gift: “Hang on to this,” he tells him, “I’m going to be famous.” He is laughing but the goal is actually no joke. It will happen, but there will be delays along the path to glory, not least his 3-year stint in the army during and after World War II from 1943 to 1946.

“The Knight (Self Portrait)” c. 1951, Cleveland Museum of Art/Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

In 1946, Lichtenstein returns to New York and that spring resumes his studies at OSU on the GI Bill. He is awarded his bachelor’s degree and will go on to earn his master’s and teach at the university, off and on, until 1951. In 1949, he marries Isabel Wilson, an interior decorator. They live at first in Columbus, then move to Cleveland where Isabel opens her own business, which is very successful. During their six years in Cleveland, Lichtenstein is selling some work, has a solo show in Cleveland and his first New York one-man show at the Carlebach Gallery. He takes part-time jobs including as an engineering draftsman and sheet-metal designer, having followed Hoyt Sherman’s advice to take drafting classes. Most artists of his generation do not have college degrees, much less credits in mechanical drawing, but both are advantages for an artist less interested in expressing an inner feeling or documenting reality than in examining art and art processes.

“End of the Trail” (A mock hero and his horse), 1951, Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/Private Collection

In the early 1950s, with the rise of Abstract Expressionism to a position of almost total dominance, the old order of 19th century narrative and genre paintings is held in contempt by critics and collectors. Lichtenstein has his own way of calling attention to the mannered conventions and tastes that once dominated art and society–by paraphrasing the despised images of heroism and sentimentality, what he calls (quote) “a purely American mythological subject matter.” He is working in series. One series pokes lyrical fun at medieval knights, castles and damsels. Another takes an ironic look at 19th-century genre paintings and there are Cubist interpretations of cowboys and Indians.

“Mickey Mouse I,” 1958: Credit, Wikiart.com, Copyright Roy Lichtenstein/Fair Use

The Cleveland years see Lichtenstein continuing to experiment, there are Cubist and Expressionist works and a period when he breaks away from all representation to try his hand a pure Abstract Expressionism. He travels frequently back to New York City where, between 1952 and 1957, he has three solo shows at the John Heller Gallery–shows that Fairfield Porter surely took in. Two sons are born to the family and Isabel’s thriving business means more painting time for her husband. The family relocates to upstate New York where Lichtenstein is hired to teach at SUNY/Oswego in 1958. The stay in Oswego is brief, owing mostly to the cold, harsh climate. Nor is the dive into Abstract Expressionism lasting. It is about this time that Lichtenstein begins to sketch an occasional cartoon character, hinting at what is to come.

“Look Mickey,” 1961, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC: Credit, wikiart.org, copyright Roy Lichtenstein/Fair Use

For Lichtenstein, things will Pop, so to speak, in the 1960s. With several one-man shows under his belt, as well as participation in multiple group shows, Lichtenstein is not exactly unknown at the dawn of the new decade, but he is not yet the household name he will be by its end. What is considered the breakthrough moment–the first time he directly transposes a scene and a style from a source of popular culture in “Look Mickey”--is hardly a deliberate career move. Legend has it that Lichtenstein painted it for his son to show to schoolmates who had been taunting him because his father was only capable of making abstract scribbles. Here was proof that his father could really paint.

“Girl with Ball,” 1961, Museum of Modern Art

Had “Look Mickey” actually been a deliberate career move, it could not have been more successful. He shows it to a colleague at Douglass College in New Jersey, where he is currently teaching and realizes afterward that Mickey and his cohort of cartoon characters are the perfect mythological American subjects he has long been drawn to. Onto a new series, he appropriates the universally familiar comic book characters and paints them using the same industrial primary colors, bold outlines and flat surfaces of his sources. And–finally–he borrows the commercial printing technique that uses small dots of color to create certain effects, and the Benday dots become a trademark device forever identified with Lichtenstein and Pop Art. The comic book panel is blown up and reorganized–and it is the subtle reorganization, its presentation intended as an optical, not an emotional, experience. Hoyt Sherman’s perception-based view of art clearly remains with Lichtenstein, a formalist with a sense of humor.

“Drowning Girl,” 1963, Museum of Modern Art

Lichtenstein shows his “Look Mickey” and “Popeye” paintings to Ivan Karp, director of the Leo Castelli Gallery, New York’s leading dealer in contemporary art at the time, and Castelli takes him on. His first one-man show at Castelli is held from February 10 to March 3, 1962, and sells out to influential collectors even before it opens. It marks the beginning of national and then worldwide fame. Also fortune, which convinces him that he can live from his art without teaching. He leaves his post at Douglass, moves from New Jersey to Manhattan and he and Isabel separate.

“M-Maybe, 1965, Museum Ludwig, Cologne: Credit: wikiart.org, copyright Roy Lichtenstein/Fair Use

Expanding beyond his characters from the funnies, Lichtenstein moves on to take scenes from more adult comic books, particularly those focused on war or the dramas of romantic love. This would seem to contradict an expressed wish to empty his subjects of meaning as much as possible but, as Lichtenstein later tells the critic John Coplans, what especially interests him in cartoons is the contrast between highly emotional content and “cool” means of depiction. He also is finding inspiration in other commercially-rooted print matter like advertisements and billboards.

"Explosion No. 1,” 1965 Ludwig Museum, Cologne: Credit: wikiart.org, copyright Roy Lichtenstein/Fair Use

The term Pop Art gained some currency in the late 1950s, but the movement creates a media explosion in the 1960s. By that time the heyday of Abstract Expressionism is long over and young collectors and the popular press are wildly enthusiastic about Pop Art. But while the public reaction is “hysterically positive,” according to Jennifer Wells, a contributor to the catalog for “Definitive Statements,” a 1986 exhibition at the Parrish Art Museum, art critics are, for the most part, vehemently opposed, calling patrons of the movement “the new vulgarians.”

Henry Geldzahler, left, with Christopher Scott in Water Mill, 1966 by John Jonas Gruen.

In December 1962 the Museum of Modern Art takes on the controversy, holding a symposium with a lopsided panel of critics. Pop enthusiasts on the panel are outnumbered four-to-one and Henry Geldzahler, then a curator at the Met, (also another part-time Southampton resident) is the sole dissenter against the overwhelmingly negative response of the others to the question: Is Pop Art art at All? The establishment fury can only be good news for Lichtenstein who once asserted: “I want my images to be as critical, as threatening and as insistent as possible.” When asked What about? his response was,As visual objects, as paintings–not as critical commentaries about the world.”

“Goldfish Bowl II,” 1978, (painted bronze), Saint Louis Art Museum, Credit: wikiart.org, copyright Roy Lichtenstein/Fair Use

A 1964 Life magazine article titled “Is He the Worst Artist in the U.S.? keeps the controversy alive but does not keep Lichtenstein from moving from success to success. Between 1964 and ‘68 he has numerous one-man shows, including a retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum. He expands into sculpture, painted bronze, becomes a prolific printmaker, and begins using a host of industrial “non-art” materials. In his personal life he is also headed in new directions. After separating in 1963 from his wife, whose alcoholism has created a rift, there is a divorce in 1965. Three years later Lichtenstein marries Dorothy Herzka, then director of the pioneering Paul Bianchini Gallery.

Roy & Dorothy Lichtenstein outside his Southampton studio, ca. 1981 by Arthur Schatz

In 1970, the Lichtenstein’s buy property on Gin Lane and make it their primary residence. It is a fertile decade for the artist who, if uninterrupted, works 8 to 10 hours a day in his spacious modern Southampton studio and keeps a low profile in town. In a 1982 interview in the local press, coordinated with a six-week show of his work at the Parrish, he tells reporter Ann Nowak that he rarely goes to the beach, takes in movies on weeknights to avoid crowds, and rarely socializes. He is obviously happiest when creating art and his search for new forms and sources is more emphatic than ever.

“Yellow and Green Brushstrokes, “1966, Museum for Modern Art, Frankfurt Credit: wikiart.org, Roy Lichtenstein/Fair Use

Among other series, he works on a “Mirror Series” exploring light and shadow on glass, an “Entablature Series,” abstracting architectural elements, and paints four large murals of “Brushstrokes” in which he sheds ironic light on the Abstract Expressionist cult of the brushstroke. In 1979, he is made a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

“Mermaid,” 1979, Miami Beach: Credit miamiandbeaches.com

At the beginning of the 1980s, Lichtenstein, at the apex of a busy mural career, re-establishes a studio in New York City while remaining a part-time Southampton resident. Between 1983 and 1990, he will create five murals as well as public sculptures in Miami Beach, Columbus, Minneapolis, Barcelona and Singapore. In 1982, The Parrish Art Museum honors him with a six-week exhibition of his work between 1951 and 1982. The show, organized by his assistant Olivia Motch, prompts a serious analysis by a New York Times critic of the artist’s unique approach to his seemingly trivial subjects. He writes that Lichtenstein (quote) “has fun with the triviality, and in the process clears the air.” Other exhibitions of Lichtenstein’s work have been held at the Parrish over four decades, most recently “Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948-1960.” As a complement to that exhibition, Dorothy Lichtenstein joined Donna De Salvo last October to discuss the artist’s early work. Donna De Salvo, a former Robert Lehman Curator at the Parrish, is now a curator at the Dia Art Foundation.

“Landscape with Boats” 1996. Credit: Cleveland Museum of Art, Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

Looking ahead to the 1990s, the Guggenheim Museum is preparing a large retrospective of Lichtenstein’s work to open in 1993. Not one to rest on his laurels, Lichtenstein will continue to experiment during the decade, producing three major series. In his Interior series, windows and mirrors bathe suburban living rooms in ambiguous reflections. In another series, the Nudes, he returns to women in the comic distress of rocky romance. And when he turns to Chinese landscapes he applies his dots to create subtle scenes of drifting fields and softly rendered mountains and waters. He and Dorothy keep their residence in Southampton where they manage to avoid the social frenzy of summer, living quietly but productively.

“Modern Head” 1990, National Gallery of Art. Credit: Arts Observer Photo

In 1995, their serenity is briefly interrupted when “Modern Head,” a stainless steel sculpture is installed in Agawam Park after the village fathers permit the Parrish Art Museum to erect it as part of a comprehensive exhibition of Lichtenstein’s work. It is placed there in August and by the New Year simmering disapproval among villagers, who are no fans of Pop Art–or of any alterations to a beloved park–has come to a boil. Authorities responsible for its presence are attacked for allowing (quote) “that monstrosity” on hallowed ground and they capitulate. Though its presence was always meant to be temporary, it is not allowed to linger–a defeat for modern art and its fans in Southampton. From the artist’s perspective, however, it is no such thing. Lichtenstein is unruffled. He is not offended, he tells a reporter, adding, (quote) “Some people really like it just as some people don’t, and if everybody liked it I’d have to rethink my presumptions.”

Roy and Dorothy Lichtenstein’s Washington Street Studio, 1992. Credit: Roy Lichtenstein Archives, Christine de Grancy

A year later, in September 1997, Lichtenstein dies of complications of pneumonia at the age of 73. He is mourned by a circle of friends and legions of art-lovers. His work--in myriad forms and countless locations is testament to his creative genius and buoyant spirit. Adding to his artistic legacy, last month, Dorothy Lichtenstein, President of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, and Adam D. Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, announced that the Lichtenstein family will donate the late artist’s studio building to the Whitney. In her remarks Dorothy Lichtenstein spoke of the building’s long history as a site for artistic and intellectual endeavor and observed that the studio will carry on Roy Lichtenstein’s legacy far into the future.

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