Known as a leading figure of the new Pop Art movement and easily recognizable for his boldly-colored parodies of comic strips and advertisements, Roy Fox Lichtenstein was born (in 1923) and raised in New York City, living in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Interested since he was a child in science and comic books, he developed a passion for art in his teens. He took watercolor classes at Parsons School of Design in 1937 and attended the Art Students League in 1940, studying with American realist painter Reginald Marsh. He went on to enroll at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, but his college years were interrupted in 1943 when he was drafted and sent to Europe for World War II. Only after his wartime service, in 1946, he managed to finish his undergraduate degree and master’s degree — both in fine arts. While working as a window-display designer for a department store in Cleveland in the late 1940s, Lichtenstein started exhibiting his art in galleries nationwide, including in New York City. In the 1950s, he often took his artistic subjects from mythology, American history, and folklore, and he painted those subjects in styles that paid homage to earlier art from the 18th century through modernism.
Only in the early 1960s, Lichtenstein started experimenting with different subjects and methods. In this new phase, his work was more interested in American popular culture, with an eye on the recent success of Abstract Expressionist painting and a particular admiration for Jackson Pollok and Willem de Kooning. But differently from them, instead of painting abstract, Lichtenstein took his imagery directly from comic books and advertising, and rather than emphasize the emotional process of painting, he replicated his sources right down to an impersonal-looking stencil technique that imitated the mechanical printing used for commercial art, as we can see in his best-known work from this period: “Whaam!,” painted in 1963.
By the mid-1960s, he was nationally known and recognized as a Pop Art leader, including Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, and Claes Oldenburg. His art became increasingly popular with both collectors and influential art dealers: Leo Castelli, among others, showed Lichtenstein’s work at his gallery for 30 years. Like much Pop Art, it provoked debate over ideas of originality, consumerism, and the fine line between art and entertainment. A new stage of his work came in the 1970s, when his focus turned “back” to the art masters of the early 20th century, like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Fernand Léger, and Salvador Dalì. In the 1980s and ’90s, he also painted representations of modern house interiors, brushstrokes, and mirror reflections in his trademark, cartoon-like style. He also began working in sculpture. Lichtenstein was committed to his art until the end of his life, often spending at least 10 hours a day in his studio. Major museum collections around the world acquired his work, and he received numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the National Medal of Arts in 1995. Lichtenstein died of complications from pneumonia on September 29, 1997, at the New York University Medical Center in Manhattan.