With a palette of primary-colours, wit, and a mechanised aesthetic, Roy Lichtenstein enlivened the American art scene in the 20th Century and helped establish Pop Art within the canon of Art History.
His celebrated style draws on commercial printing material and techniques: relying on crisp black outlines, regularized line weights, and Benday dots – a halftone industrial printing technique. Perhaps best known for his paintings and prints, Lichtenstein also worked across a variety of mediums and collaborated with commercial, social and political causes creating an oeuvre of over 5,000 paintings, prints, murals, and sculptures.
It is no surprise that Unit London artist, Jacky Tsai, renowned for his vibrant colours and imaginative use of found imagery, considers Lichtenstein a major inspiration. In fact, there are many parallels between their work and career trajectories. While both Tsai and Lichtenstein maintain distinctly unique and celebrated careers, their practices challenge mediums, defy preconceptions and reflect their respective environments: time and culture.
Roy Lichtenstein, Look Mickey, 1961
Lichtenstein’s Look Mickey (1961), solidified his career and signature expression, in his words: "it occurred to me to do it by mimicking the cartoon style without the paint texture, calligraphic line, modulation—all the things involved in expressionism.” His use of primary colours to depict Mickey and Donald, demonstrate Lichtenstein’s awareness of colour balance; while the perspective and arrangement of the comic book characters reveal his command of formal composition. Lichtenstein’s studio and tools enabled these formal triumphs inherent in Pop Art, namely his self-designed rotating easel and a perforated metal screen for making Benday dots (previously hand painted).
Roy Lichtenstein, Red and White Brushstrokes, 1965
At a time when the gestural and introspective marks of Abstract Expressionism reigned, Lichtenstein brought commercial art into the gallery. In 1961, Lichtenstein signed with Ivan Karp, the director of the Leo Castelli Gallery and a leading dealer in New York, who previously staged pioneering exhibitions of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in 1958 and Frank Stella in 1960. Lichtenstein’s first show at Castelli in 1962, featuring comic book styles, sold out – catapulting his career. He later incorporated symbols and imagery from Art History, like ionic columns, works by Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso, and Chinese landscape paintings from the Song Dynasty.
Roy Lichtenstein, Three Brushstrokes, 1984 (front of the Getty Research Institute)
Lichtenstein deviated from his comic book subjects in the late 1960s, to investigate the brushstroke – a cornerstone of Western Art History. Favouring abstraction over narrative, Lichtenstein’s brushstrokes functioned as subjects rather than a medium in his paintings, prints, and sculptures – poking fun at the intensity of brushwork in Abstract Expressionist artwork. Lichtenstein’s painting, Red and White Brushstrokes (1965) and his ten-foot sculpture, Three Brushstrokes (1984), commissioned by the Getty Research Institute, flatten strokes of colour in space. By distilling the marks he at once challenges the art enterprise and allows viewers to see paint from a new perspective.
Roy Lichtenstein, Whaam!, 1963
Lichtenstein’s artwork inventively reflected American cultural identity. Like many of his peers, he was drafted in 1943 and saw action in Europe as part of the infantry. Lichtenstein’s compositions subtly, and not so subtly pit the realities of post war society against the glamour promised in modern consumer images. Whamm!, is based on an image from the 1962 comic, All American Men of War, and presents an impersonal and highly emotive view of combat. The painting also features Lichtenstein’s trademark use of text to enhance his narratives, both exclamatory and bubble text, enabling his characters to speak beyond the canvas.
Roy Lichtenstein, In the Car, 1963
Lichtenstein’s fascination with reflection - evident in the metal of the bomber plane in Whaam! (1963), as well as his car Series and later his mirror series - not only invigorated his compositions but allow Lichtenstein to probe questions related to reality and perception. In the Car (1963) uses line weight and colour blocking to heighten the sense of speed and tension between the female passenger and male driver – underscoring an apparent gender imbalance.
Roy Lichtenstein, Girl in Mirror, 1964 Jacky Tsai, Detail of Shanghai Tang Café, 2017
A detail Tsai’s Shanghai Tang Café (2017) creatively uses mirrors to enhance the composition and add layered meaning to the scene. A Chinese woman in the foreground peers into the mirror, but reflected is a westernized image of idealized beauty, to her right another chine woman rests, gazing at western ideals of strength, power, and attraction – a Playboy magazine peaks out behind the Superman comic. Both Lichtenstein and Tsai, appropriate popular images to comment on socio-economic and political issues of their time. Lichtenstein was commissioned by Time Magazine in 1868 to create a cover of Bobby Kennedy, he did not shy away from politics, and nor does Tsai – his works raise important questions about current affairs and historical events, Destroy The Four Olds (2014), relies on print material and symbols connected to the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Roy Lichtenstein, Time Magazine, May 24, 1968 | Vol. 91 No. 21 Jacky Tsai, Destroy The Four Olds, 2014
Lichtenstein died unexpectedly from pneumonia-related complications in 1997. He was a leading figure in Pop Art alongside Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and James Rosenquist. His instantly recognizable works form the permanent collections and continue to exhibit at major art institutions and galleries around the world. Despite the commercial qualities of his most popular work, Lichtenstein received formal art training and later taught on the Arts faculty at two American universities. He chose to build on his knowledge and understanding of art traditions and trends, and carve his own path. Tsai, in a similar vein, has charted a unique style that respects Chinese traditions but reflects his cross-cultural reality.