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Roy Lichtenstein

American, 1923 - 1997

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Born in New York, Roy Lichtenstein developed an interest in drawing, science, and jazz music at a young age. In 1939 he took summer classes at the Art Students League, where he was taught by Reginald Marsh. From 1940 to 1942 he continued his studies at Ohio State University with Hoyt L. Sherman, among others, before being drafted into military service from 1943 to 1945. After World War II he stayed briefly in Paris, where he studied French and visited the Louvre. Supported by the G.I. Bill, Lichtenstein returned from Europe and resumed his art studies at the School of Fine Arts at Ohio State. After graduating in 1949 with an MFA, he continued to work in Ohio as a teacher, designer, and decorator; during this time he would periodically bring his work to show to galleries in Manhattan. Hoping to be closer to the city, in 1957 Lichtenstein accepted an assistant professorship of art at the State University of New York at Oswego. In 1960 he was appointed to Douglass College at Rutgers University, New Jersey, where he met Allan Kaprow and Claes Oldenburg. The next year, Leo Castelli agreed to represent him, and his career quickly took off. Resolving to dedicate himself to his art, Lichtenstein resigned from Rutgers in 1963 and moved to New York. He settled in Southampton, Long Island, in 1970, and in 1984 he acquired a studio loft in Manhattan. He split his time between Southampton and Manhattan until his death in 1997.

Among Lichtenstein's earliest subjects was the American frontier, rendered in a style influenced by cubism. In the late 1950s his nonfigurative art reflected an interest in abstract expressionism. He also began to explore comic-strip imagery in his drawings and in 1961 painted Look Mickey, which he considered his first pop painting. This work marked a turning point in its use of cartoon characters and conventions and in its deliberate imitation of commercial printing processes. During this first phase of his mature career, Lichtenstein would begin by making a sketch from sources that included comics, advertisements, and other found print material featuring consumer goods and domestic objects. He would recompose the image for narrative and formal purposes, then trace the drawing onto a canvas where he would make further adjustments. He painted his dots using a perforated metal screen as a type of stencil, imitating industrial printing techniques. Lichtenstein quickly emerged as a leading practitioner of pop art and was included in the New Painting of Common Objects show at the Pasadena Art Museum (1962), the first museum exhibition to examine the new style. He explored a variety of subjects in his signature style, including still life, explosions, brushstrokes, and artistic movements such as cubism, surrealism, and expressionism.

Lichtenstein completed several large-scale public sculptures, as well as a number of major murals, in such cities as Dusseldorf, New York, and Tel Aviv. He experimented with printmaking as early as the 1950s and collaborated with Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles and Tyler Graphics Ltd. of Mount Kisco, New York, in addition to Graphicstudio in Florida. Lichtenstein was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York in 1979. Additional honors include the Skowhegan Medal for Painting (1977) and honorary doctorates from the California Institute of Fine Arts in Valencia (1977), Ohio State University (1988), the Royal College of Art in London (1993), and George Washington University (1996). Roy Lichtenstein, the first retrospective of his painting and sculpture, opened at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1993.

In 1990, the painting Look Mickey was bequeathed to the National Gallery of Art by Roy and Dorothy Lichtenstein in honor of the institution’s fiftieth anniversary. Four years later, the Gallery organized The Prints of Roy Lichtenstein, the first comprehensive survey of the artist's prints in more than two decades. A catalogue raisonné was published on the occasion of the exhibition. In 1995, President Clinton presented the National Medal of Arts to Lichtenstein at a gala ceremony. One year later, the National Gallery of Art became the largest repository of the artist’s works when he donated 154 prints and two books to the museum.

Lichtenstein continued to refine his technique and expand his subject matter in his later work, turning to such unexpected themes as mirrors, abstraction, the female nude, and landscape painting in the Chinese style. By the 1990s the artist, who helped to found pop art in the 1960s, had transcended its limitations to create a nuanced and wide-ranging body of work. Lichtenstein passed away suddenly in 1997 from complications due to pneumonia.

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