The Legacy of Roy Lichtenstein
Roy Lichtenstein grew up engrossed in New York City culture, frequently visiting the museums, galleries, and concerts the city had to offer. He showed artistic and musical ability at an early age and looked up to artists such as Rembrandt, Daumier, and Picasso. While Lichtenstein admired the greats, he was disenchanted at the notion that some artists’ work was considered great while others’ could be deemed inferior. He dedicated his career to elevating “low-brow” elements of American culture to the same status as traditional subject matters. Through his pieces, Lichtenstein challenged art hierarchies and helped redefine what constituted high art.
Abstract expressionist art was gaining mainstream popularity in the 1940s and 1950s. Before developing his signature style of saturated colors and Benday dots, he painted in a cubic expressionist style. While his work and process were vastly different from what he would become known for, it still parodied American mythology, like cowboy and indians. From the early days, Lichtenstein was interested in painting cliched subjects through a different lens.
While popular, expressionist paintings seemed to have no relevance to the day-to-day world Americans found themselves in. Lichtenstein in turn painted what he was around him: products, comics, and cartoons. In the early 1960s, there was a disconnect between fine art and what American culture now looked like. He recalled, “Although almost anything seemed to be fair subject matter for art, commercial art and particularly cartooning were not considered to be among those possibilities.” While his subjects came from works of fiction or industry, they were a more realistic view of what American life looked like at the time. Sweet Dreams Baby is one of Lichtenstein’s earliest pop art prints when he adopted his signature style. Taking stills from popular comics and advertisements, he would copy the source material by hand, reframing the image to make his own narrative. He then traced the altered sketch onto the canvas, with the help of a projector. As Lichtenstein developed the process, he began using perforated templates to produce the uniform dot pattern.
After mastering the style that would come to define his work, he refocused his pieces around the aesthetic cliches that existed in the art world. While expressionist painters were revered for their gestural strokes and organic approach, Lichtenstein satirized the style by recreating it in a highly-produced, graphic fashion.
In the early 1990s, he released his Reflections portfolio, featuring motifs from his earlier works that were abstracted by shards of color and patterns. Coming full circle, the comic-inspired pieces that rose him to fame were now being refiltered and reproduced. Lichtenstein shows that even his own art is not safe from parody and oversaturation.
Lichtenstein, along with other Pop artists, infiltrated the elitist spaces of the art world with themes that were deemed taboo, yet accurately depicted American culture. Instilled with natural talent and an admiration for the greats, he was still able to take a step back and question the mindset that kept art inaccessible to the masses. Lichtenstein always painted what was around him, which allowed him to document while he parodied. Through his legacy, he gives viewers a glimpse of life in the 1960s and holds a mirror up to the played-out tropes in art history.