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

“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.