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Pop Art Icon Lichtenstein Dies

Culture: With his comic-strip style, he explored popular urban life and shrewdly zeroed in on Abstract Expressionism. He was 73.

September 30, 1997|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

Roy Lichtenstein, the artist whose classic paintings of comic strips were a defining factor in the Pop Art movement that exploded in the 1960s, died Monday at New York University Medical Center, where he had been hospitalized for several weeks. He was 73.

The cause of death was pneumonia, according to Aryn Lieberman, spokeswoman for Leo Castelli Gallery, which has represented Lichtenstein since 1962.

Together with Claes Oldenburg, Edward Ruscha and the late Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein ranked among the most important American artists to explore the vernacular culture of mass-produced consumer goods and popular urban life.

"Roy had a way of translating popular icons into a lasting art form," said Stephanie Barron, vice president and senior curator of 20th-century art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where a survey of Lichtenstein's prints was shown in 1995. "He was not counterculture; he celebrated culture."

Richard Koshalek, director of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, where Lichtenstein's retrospective of paintings and sculptures was hosted in 1994, said: "What was most important about him was his ability to maintain an extremely high quality of work over many decades--and his ability to challenge our idea of what art is. Roy also had a tremendous influence on a lot of young artists."

Soft-spoken, shy but erudite and witty, Lichtenstein was widely regarded as a pleasure to be around.

"He was the most generous, warmhearted man," said Constance Glenn, director of the University Art Museum at Cal State Long Beach, where a current show of Pop Art multiples includes more than a dozen of his works. "Though his art remains of his time, he was very much an art historian. He made art about art--like Delacroix making art after Ingres."

Lichtenstein's artistic breakthrough came unusually late in his life. He was 38 when he painted "Look Mickey" (1961), his first picture to employ a comic strip as subject matter.

For the prior 15 years, Lichtenstein had taught at Ohio State University, the State University of New York at Oswego and, finally, at Rutgers University. His work was then based on long-established styles and subjects favored by such European Modernists as Pablo Picasso and Paul Klee, as well as on kitschy icons of 19th-century American painting, like Emanuel Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware" (1851).

While Abstract Expressionist painting was making American art the international standard in the 1950s, Lichtenstein was trying to develop a personal artistic style for his work, albeit without much success.

"Look Mickey" changed all that. Instead of a personal style, identified by the unique expression of the artist's hand, Lichtenstein went after a brazenly anonymous, machine-made look, adapted from industrial techniques of mass production. The halftone screens of Benday process dots used in newspaper printing became his personal trademark--hard, flat, repetitive and unexpressive.

His cartoon subjects were initially dismissed by hostile critics as jokey and empty-headed, but, in fact, they are a shrewd and incisive commentary on the Abstract Expressionist painting that dominated the era.

"Look Mickey" uses blunt, red-yellow-blue primaries to fashion a slyly hilarious riff on Abstract Expressionism. While Mickey Mouse looks on with bemusement at a fishing pier, a wild-eyed Donald Duck raves hysterically about the giant fish he thinks he's caught on the other end of his tugging line, shouting, "Look Mickey, I've hooked a big one!!" In fact, the whopper is inside Donald's own coattails, which he has unwittingly hooked behind his back.

The painting is a devastating satire on a reigning doctrine of Expressionist art, which asserted that the self can know only its own experiences, its own states of being.

In using a comic strip to undermine Abstract Expressionist art, Lichtenstein accomplished several subversive goals at once. He helped to topple the status quo.

The privilege accorded to abstract art was undercut by his celebration of representational images. The "big, American themes" said to be found in Jackson Pollock's and Willem de Kooning's sweeping abstract pictures were replaced by the even bigger, even more American theme of popular culture. A famous magazine article had dubbed the Abstract Expressionist painters "The Irascibles," but who could be more quick-tempered a character than good old Donald Duck?

Lichtenstein's work of the early 1960s contains a virtual catalog of ruling cliches about modern art. A trio of paintings now in the MOCA collection are emblematic: "Meat," "Strong Hand (The Grip)" and "Desk Calendar" (all 1962) use commercial advertising styles to depict a supermarket rump roast, a muscle-building implement and an appointment book. Together, they record the "meaty, muscular, autobiographical" content said to be contained in great Abstract Expressionist painting.

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