Roy Lichtenstein: His Career, Artwork, and Legacy

Roy Lichtenstein, "In the Car" (detail), 1963. Oil, magna and graphite on canvas. (Christie's, November 2015).

Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s signature style, which pays homage to mass production and the printing process, has cemented his oeuvre as some of the most instantly recognizable works of 20th century art. But long after the craze for Pop art had subsided, Lichtenstein continued to explore an array of mediums, including sculpture. Though widely celebrated today, the artist’s subject matter and fascination with reproduction made him a target for criticism. Regardless of what art critics of the time argued, one thing is certain: Lichtenstein is an iconic figure of the American art narrative.

In honor of Roy Lichtenstein’s birthday on October 27, read the story of how he came to be one of the first famed American Pop artists below.

Early Life

Roy Lichtenstein was born in New York City to an upper middle class family, which afforded him the luxury of early exposure to world-class museums, concerts, and other aspects of Manhattan culture. He attended a private school for boys and then Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, Ohio. During the summer he trained at the Art Students League of New York with artist Reginald Marsh.

Early artistic influences for Lichtenstein included artists such as Rembrandt van Rijn, Honoré Daumier, and Pablo Picasso – particularly his politically-inspired work, “Guernica.” Learning about the masters led Lichtenstein to question accepted canons.

His years at OSU were interrupted in 1943 when Lichtenstein was drafted into the army and eventually sent to Europe in 1945. He toured through France, Belgium, and Germany as part of the infantry. After the war, he returned to care for his father and complete his degree at OSU.

Lichtenstein took a position as an instructor at OSU and completed his master’s degree with the continued support of Hoyt L. Sherman, an American artist and Lichtenstein’s professor in the 1940s.

Artistic Career

In the 40s and 50s, Lichtenstein began creating several series of new work. Initially he recreated American genre paintings from the previous century in Cubist style. He would frequently alter commercial objects in his works, which was frowned upon by the fine art community. What critics deemed trivial, he saw as a quintessential example of American culture.

This transition toward figurative art marked the larger art world’s shift away from Abstract Expressionism, which had dominated the art scene prior to the explosion of Pop art. Pop artists introduced a movement that made use of images from pop culture to address larger social issues.

Lichtenstein moved to New York with his family to assume the role of assistant professor in industrial design and from there, moved to Douglass College at Rutgers University to work in their studio art program. While working at Douglass, Lichtenstein began toying with comic book characters and flat backgrounds and famously began appropriating the Ben-Day dots from mechanical patterning. These dots were originally used to convey variations in texture and color in commercial design and mechanical patterns. His first work incorporating this style was “Look Mickey.”

Lichtenstein had his first solo exhibition in 1962, quickly elevating his name and market value. He spent most of the 1960s experimenting with the comic book form, particularly those by American publisher DC Comics. Together with contemporaries such as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Lichtenstein heralded the Pop art movement, and began integrating popular imagery into new work. In 1963 he created the iconic “Drowning Girl.” Later in the 60s, his increasing fame through pieces like “Brushstrokes” helped to reignite the art of printmaking.

While Lichtenstein received criticism for copying cartoons, the artistic process involved considerable alterations and implementation of the Ben-Day dots. These dots highlighted a central tenant of Pop art, arguing that communication is filtered through the lens of language.

Lichtenstein spent most of the 60s exploring the style that would make him famous. After moving back to New York for the sake of his art, Lichtenstein became a prolific printmaker and experimented with sculpture. Like many of the other key members of the Pop art movement, he explored mass-produced objects and incorporated them into his paintings and sculptures. In New York, his work became increasingly abstract as he drew on a plethora of movements for inspiration including Surrealism, Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism.

Notable Works

Whaam! (1963) – “Whaam!” is a 13-foot long diptych. The left panel shows an American fighter pilot shooting down a plane, which is located in the right panel. Like many of his early works, this piece was inspired by a comic called “All American Men of War.”

Drowning Girl (1963) – This was one of Lichtenstein’s earliest works, depicting a woman in a tragic situation. He appropriated the image of the woman from a DC Comic entitled “Run for Love!” The tone of the piece is melodramatic, highlighting gender stereotypes of the time.

Brushstrokes (1965 – 1966) – During this time, Lichtenstein created a series of paintings depicting large, abstracted brushstrokes. The series was intended to suggest that Abstract Expressionism also fostered commercial aspects such as calculated brushstrokes, repeating motifs, and recurring series of paintings.

House I (1996 – 1998) – This is one of Lichtenstein’s most famous sculptures, and the first in a series of three. It maintains the same elements of his paintings like thick, black lines and primary colors. The sculpture is best known for its optical illusion; the side of the house appears as though it’s both receding from and approaching the viewer.

Roy Lichtenstein Quotes

  • “Pop art looks out into the world. It doesn’t look like a painting of something, it looks like the thing itself.”
  • “I like to pretend that my art has nothing to do with me.”
  • “I think that most people think painters are kind of ridiculous, you know?”
  • “Art doesn’t transform. It just plain forms.”
  • “In America the biggest is the best.”

Roy Lichtenstein Recent News

Tate Liverpool just opened an exhibition titled “Artist Rooms: Roy Lichtenstein in Focus” featuring the artist’s iconic Pop paintings as well as examples of his work in film and three-screen installation.

Sources: Lichtenstein Foundation |