This Day in Jewish History

1977: Pop Artist Roy Lichtenstein, Who Couldn't Help but See the Humor, Dies

After fighting in WWII, Roy Fox Lichtenstein had a stab at Abstract Expressionism, then his son challenged him to draw a decent Mickey Mouse.

Artist Roy Lichtenstein poses at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in front of his artwork, New York City, October 1993.
Chrystyna Czajkowsky, AP Photo

On September 29, 1977, artist Roy Lichtenstein died, at age 73. Although he had a long career that encompassed a number of distinct styles, Lichtenstein is undoubtedly best remembered for his large pop-art paintings that imitated the flat style of comic-book images, including “Whaaam,” from 1963, depicting a cartoon version of dogfight in the air, or “Drowning Girl,” from the same year, in which a woman struggling in the waves, says to herself, “I don’t care! I’d rather sink – than call Brad for help!”

Lichtenstein was an artist with a well-developed sense of humor, who, in the words of his New York Times obituary, was already “offering 1990s irony in the 1960s.” Even now, however, there continues to be disagreement over both the artistic value of his work, and just what he was getting at in it.

Fighter in WWII, then back to art

Roy Fox Lichtenstein was born in New York, on October 27, 1923. His father, Milton Lichtenstein, was a successful real-estate broker, and his mother, the former Beatrice Werner, was a homemaker.

Roy was raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and graduated in 1940 from the private Franklin School for Boys. It was during his high school years that he became interested in making art, and in the summer before beginning college, he attended classes at New York’s Art Students League.

Lichtenstein entered Ohio State University in the autumn of 1940, and studied art until he was drafted by the U.S. Army, in early 1943. He served in the infantry, seeing action in France, Belgium and Germany. After his discharge, he returned to OSU, where he earned his B.A. in 1946, followed by a master’s degree three years later.

Lichtenstein worked for several years as an art instructor at OSU, but when he was denied tenure, in 1951, he moved from Columbus, Ohio, to Cleveland. While working on his own art on the side, Lichtenstein supported his family – he had married for the first time in 1949 -- designing window displays for a department store and designing metal tools.

"I Can See the Whole Room" by Roy Lichtenstein
Bloomberg

Life is just so funny

In the ‘50s, Lichtenstein worked on both paintings and sculpture, and was under the spell of Abstract Expressionism, which was then the rage. Try as he might, however, he couldn’t find himself in the highly personalized art form that seemed to take itself so seriously. He saw the humor in everything, and he intuitively rejected the hierarchy that distinguished between “high” and “low” art, the latter of which inevitably included all commercial art.

Before he began painting pop images directly, he introduced hidden version of cartoon characters into his work. When his son, one day in 1961, pointed to a Mickey Mouse comic book, however, and said, “I bet you can’t paint as good as that, eh, Dad?” he took up the challenge, and produced “Look, Mickey,” a straightforward reproduction in yellow, blue and red of a scene depicting Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. That was followed by other images from gum wrappers and cartoons.

Lichtenstein’s work was instantly accessible to most any audience, and when he had a solo show at the Leo Castelli Gallery that sold out before it even opened to the public, he became an overnight celebrity.

"Ohhh...Alright...," a 1964 painting by Roy Lichtenstein sits on display during a fall auction preview at Christie's in New York, U.S., on Friday, Oct. 29, 2010.
Tom Starkweather, Bloomberg

Not all the publicity was favorable, of course: The headline of a 1964 article about him in Life magazine asked, “Is he the worst artist in America?”

The cartoonist Bill Griffith described Lichtenstein’s importance in this way: "There's high art and there's low art. And then there's high art that can take low art, bring it into a high art context, appropriate it and elevate it into something else."

By the early 1960s, Lichtenstein had become an integral part of the New York art scene. He stopped teaching and devoted himself to art full-time.

His works got larger, and in his latter decades, he did vast commissions, some commercial, such as a mural for the lobby of New York’s Equitable Center. Two large public works done for Israel are a piece for Jerusalem’s Safra Square, executed in memory of Yitzhak Rabin the year after his murder, and the mural that takes up a large wall which greets visitors to the Tel Aviv Museum.