WHAM! VROOP! BLAM! BRATATATA! The painted words smacked viewers in the face with all the impact of their inspirations, comic book art. In the ’60s Roy Lichtenstein was an iconoclast, placed with Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns in the then-terrible trio of Pop Art. But instead of painting Campbell’s soup cans or American flags, Lichtenstein celebrated hot dogs, rotobroiled chickens and white bread smeared with mustard in scenes that compressed the country’s raw energy into unforgettable imagery. Collectors, delighted by the mordant wit of his bubblegum funnies, bid up his prices from $800 to $75,000 per painting, and in 1968 London’s august Tate Gallery gave Lichtenstein a full retrospective, the first ever for a living American.
Then with the 1970s, the Pop bubble burst. “The movement had its own time,” Lichtenstein shrugs. “You can’t keep exploring the same thing over and over.” Instead he holed up in his Southampton, L.I. home, a former estate garage on exclusive Gin Lane, and turned loose his Pop Art techniques, including benday dots and ultrabright Magna colors, on new subjects, ranging from architectural entablatures and Art Deco furnishings to a tongue-in-cheek exploration of the styles of artists as varied as Matisse, Picasso, Dali and the German Expressionists.
Now, at age 57, Lichtenstein is displaying the results in his first major museum show in more than a decade. In May the St. Louis Art Museum opened a show of 120 Lichtenstein paintings, drawings and sculptures that will move on to Seattle, New York and Fort Worth before going to Cologne, Florence, Paris, Madrid and Tokyo.
The punchy, rotogravure-style cartoons have begun to yield to more eclectic subjects—and Lichtenstein is little bothered by critics who claim his new work is cold or impersonal. “You get such divergent views that you discount them,” he says, recalling his controversial splash into the artistic vanguard 20 years ago. (At the time, one critic blasted him as “the worst artist in America.”)
Lichtenstein knows the pains of laboring in obscurity. Born in 1923, a New York real estate broker’s son, he put in a brief stint at the Art Students League but spent his formative years studying and teaching at Ohio State. Quitting campus life in 1951, he worked at design jobs in Cleveland to support his painting, then returned to academe when he failed to make headway in the face of the vogue for Abstract Expressionism.
Lichtenstein began by playing with Americana themes—cowboys and Indians, Washington crossing the Delaware. When his two young sons requested Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, Daddy reportedly obliged with slick renditions right off gum wrappers. “Painting these subjects with commercial techniques produced a sort of anti-art,” he explains. “They were hatefully lowbrow and thus provocative.”
Provocative indeed! But under the shrewd direction of superdealer Leo Castelli, Lichtenstein’s reputation soared. Today one of his early comic panels can command up to $300,000, while his current paintings range from $25,000 to $150,000. But the artist is more proud of the movement he helped create than of his monetary success. “Pop Art was the first to see what modern industrial America was really like,” he says, “without cathedrals and barns, but with supermarkets, advertising and comics.”
Even if the Pop era had never ended, Lichtenstein’s shy manner would have led him to retreat from the limelight. He much prefers the quiet informality of Southampton, where he has lived with his second wife, Dorothy, for the past dozen years. A former gallery manager (she first met Roy while mounting a Pop show), Dorothy, 41, is a self-described adventurer who has taken flying lessons and camped out in the Sahara. Roy confines his exploring to the large saltbox studio near the house, often spending eight hours a day there, seven days a week. “My work gives me adequate vacation,” he says. “There’s no pressure involved, such as deadlines, so it’s not something to get away from.” Not completely studio-bound, he’ll unwind with tennis and socializing with friends, including painters Larry Rivers and Jack Youngerman.
In the last year Lichtenstein, who generally juggles six or seven works at a time, turned out 30 paintings, 12 sculptures, 60 drawings and six prints. Surprisingly, he still fears an artist’s block. “I do anything to avoid it,” he confesses. “I make sure I know what I’m doing a year in advance. There is always something coming up in my mind.”