Monday, October 19, 2015

Chapter 16, Roy Lichtenstein #2

Something Completely Different: Roy Lichtenstein #2

Free Chapter excerpted from our illustrated book Famous Artists' Cats: The Book

The biggest mistake you can make with Roy Lichtenstein is to underestimate him. One of the most reviled and admired visual artists of his day, Lichtenstein’s original ideas about what should go on a canvas continued to flow for many years after his fame was firmly established.

His fame evolved from his exploiting the esthetics of comic book art and advertising, reimagining it on high art canvases. His pioneering use of Ben-Day dots to recreate the sense of print material made his paintings instantly recognizable, as did his exaggerated parodies of comic book scenes.

Roy Lichtenstein's Black Cat #2 / © Deborah Julian
What irritated people was his unwillingness to credit and compensate the artists whose work he parodied, repurposing their creations as canvas art by blowing them up, with little or no other alteration, on a much larger scale. 

Defenders pointed out that his technique was a completely original extension that made something new.

And if it was so easy to pull off, how come none of the comic book artists did it themselves? No matter what the inspiration, nobody before or since pulled off a Lichtenstein.

Lost in the fame of his pop art paintings, which nowadays sell at auction for over $50 million, is the irony and humor Lichtenstein invested in much of his work. His pop art parodies, for example, played with the most exaggerated of emotional content from his sources. 

In Drowning Girl, one of his most famous, Lichtenstein paints a remarkably well made up woman in swirling waves of waters and includes the melodramatic caption, “I don’t care! I’d rather sink… than call Brad for help.”

No telephone appears to be available, nor is there an explanation for why her tears are visible underwater.

Say what you want about credits for parody, Lichtenstein chose wisely with his subjects.

Even more lost are some of the innovative works he created in the decades that followed. Forget comics, he parodied the masters. He took major pictures by Van Gogh (Bedroom in Arles) and Matisse (Goldfish) and transported them a hundred years forward.

Van Gogh’s new modernist bedroom is neat and clean and orderly and Matisse’s goldfish lose all their impressionist flourish, living now in a flat world of commercial imagery.

Probably Roy Lichtenstein’s funniest innovation is the one he used to draw the wonder of his black cat, Billy. In a sterile, modern living room where event the fruit looks plastic and spare, the painter hung the precise opposite of a traditional painting.


Billy stares at something visitors to art galleries rarely see: the back side of a canvas painting, raw canvas stretched across a frame, seen from behind. Lichtenstein, it seems, chose, later in life, to moon the public in his own, still utterly original way.