In our refectory at school, there was this huge picture that had been made by the sixth form. It was a fighter plane exploding after being hit by a missile from another plane, with this huge lettering that followed the missile saying Whaam! It became my picture around school (granted, there wasn’t much choice) principally because it looked like one of the pictures in my Victor comic. Up till that point I hadn’t known that art could appeal to young people barely into double figures.
What I didn’t appreciate till much later, was that it was a reproduction of Roy Lichtenstein’s piece of the same name (Whaam!), and this sort of thing actually had its own name, Pop Art. As I grew we learnt more about this, I began to produce my own artwork of this type, beginning with a work very much inspired by Warhols Soup Can’s, entitled ‘tin of pineapple chunks and other stuff in the carrier bag my Mum gave me for Domestic Science’ (1986) that I entered for a prestigious competition (for prestigious competition, please read o-level art) I really felt I were walking I the footsteps of both Lichtenstein and Warhol with the flat response (c grade) I received from the art establishment (exam board)
Lichtenstein himself was born in New York City back in 1927, to an affluent family. Obsessed with Jazz, his portraits of some of his favourite artists inspired him to take art classes. He went on to study Fine Art at Ohio State, until this was interrupted by World War Two where he served as an orderly and draughtsman.
He returned to his studies after the War, and then enrolled on the graduate program at the University combining it with teaching Art. Those people who witnessed his first solo exhibition, in 1951 at the Carlebach Gallery in New York, would have found an artists struggling to find his voice. Flirting with a myriad of styles at the time, principally Cubism and Expressionism, nothing like the style for which he would gain worldwide recognition.
By 1961 he was back in New York, again teaching and was still struggling to settle creatively as well as trying to support a young family (he had two sons). It was now though that he began to become interested in the art of the commercial painters, advertisers and comic book artists, and after a prompt from his son, who told him after seeing a Mickey Mouse comic book “I bet you can’t paint as good as that, eh, Dad?” his work began to include striking imagery of household objects and familiar cartoon characters from American culture,. This period also saw the first use by Lichtenstein of Ben-Day dots rather than blocks of colour.
Worldwide fame came the way of Lichtenstein with his series of large-scale representations of comic book panels, the most famous of course being my beloved Whaam picture, currently housed in the Tate Modern, London. This sent shock waves down the art establishment and the media, Life magazine asking ‘Is he the worst artist in the U.S.? Lichtenstein responded to the criticism, and accusations of plagiarism by saying ‘The closer my work is to the original, the more threatening and critical the content. However, my work is entirely transformed in that my purpose and perception are entirely different. I think my paintings are critically transformed, but it would be difficult to prove it by any rational line of argument”
But the public loved it. Lichtenstein exhibitions around America and Europe became hot tickets, and collectors snapped up his work. His entire debut solo exhibition (at the Castelli Gallery in 1962) had been bought by collectors before the show even opened.
It’s not fair to judge Lichtenstein on purely this pop-art period. He moved on from this (whilst not abandoning completely the style or the ben-day dots) to paint a series he called the modern sculpture. From that, towards the end of the 1960’s and on he started painting his versions of old masters paintings, before working in more surreal images during the 1970’s, and using video in a video piece called ‘Three Landscapes’ for the only time, although he did have plans for more.
Towards the end of his life, he turned to painting nudes, perhaps influenced by allegedly taking a lover, Erika Wexler who claimed recently that she was his muse and appeared in his paintings from this period, notably ‘Nude with yellow flower’. Lichtenstien died, in 1997 from Pneumonia at the age of 74.
But his legend lives on. Maybe there were many young teenagers who fell in love with their 6th formers versions of his work, but an exhibition of his work is once again a hot ticket in town, this time at Tate Modern. Maybe I’ll go and watch it. It’ll sort of be nice not to have to stare up at the works while balancing my satchel on my knee, and stuffing crisps into my mouth.
Details of the exhibition are here