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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

"Drowning Girl" showed a brunet being deluged beneath a torrent of fluid color, a witty rejoinder to De Kooning's famously brushy paintings of women. In 1965 and 1966, Lichtenstein painted a series of big canvases marked with one, two or three enormous gestural brush strokes, in which every drip and splatter appeared to have been carefully rendered with the precision of a machine.

Lichtenstein even playfully went after Clement Greenberg, the most influential art critic of the day, who had championed the Abstract Expressionist painters of the 1940s and early 1950s. Greenberg, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, was narrowing his critical ideas in support of what he called "poured paintings." With Pollock's drip paintings as vaunted ancestors, Greenberg carried the banner for such younger artists as Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, who made abstract paintings by pouring liquid pigment across their canvases.

Lichtenstein responded with "Okay, Hot-Shot!" (1963), a war-comic image in which a close-up of the face of a fighter pilot is lined with blue, yellow and red streams of color, wickedly recalling the paintings of Louis, while an exploding shell (voomp!) nearby suggests a Noland target painting. The comic strip balloon coming from the pilot's screaming mouth declares, "Okay, hot-shot, okay! I'm pouring!"

In the battle over poured painting, Lichtenstein and his Pop Art colleagues were victorious.

Lichtenstein was a native New Yorker, born Oct. 27, 1923, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and raised on the Upper West Side. His father, Milton, was a real estate broker, his mother, Beatrice Werner, a homemaker.

At 16, he took a summer school class at the Art Students League, with the American Realist painter Reginald Marsh. Marsh was known for caricatured scenes of city life, and he also worked for several newspapers. Urban stylization and mass media would later turn up as central features of Lichtenstein's art.

Lichtenstein enrolled at Ohio State University in 1940, but World War II interrupted his studies. After military service in Europe he returned to Columbus, completing his master's degree in fine arts in 1949.

Another decade passed before he fell into a milieu that would galvanize the direction of his art. At Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., he met Allan Kaprow and other artists whose audience-participation performances came to be called Happenings.

After the 1960s heyday of Pop, Lichtenstein continued to paint in his meticulous Benday style, embarking first on a remarkable series of paintings of mirrors. Like Dracula and the undead, a viewer looks into the reflective surface of his mirrors but doesn't see himself reflected there--except, perhaps, as a bright reflection of the processes of mass media.

Lichtenstein's career is a contemporary inventory of modern art historical styles--Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Neo-Plasticism, Futurism, Expressionism--all leading to the Abstract Expressionism on which he founded his own Pop work. In recent years, he had begun to expand his purview into Asian painting, executing a series of pictures based on Chinese scrolls.

In 1949, Lichtenstein married Isabel Wilson; they divorced in 1965.

He is survived by his wife, Dorothy Herzka, whom he married in 1968, and by his sons, David and Mitchell, from his first marriage.

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Milestones

Oct. 27, 1923: Roy Fox Lichtenstein is born in Manhattan.

1940: Studies painting with Reginald Marsh at New York's Art Students League (Later studies at Ohio State University, Columbus)

1943-46: Serves in the U.S. Army.

1957: Begins to create Abstract Expressionist-style paintings that include cartoon images.

1961: Paints "Look Mickey," his first classic pop art work.

1962: Visits Andy Warhol's studio, and is taken on by Leo Castelli Gallery.

1969: Creates his first prints at Gemini G.E.L., in Los Angeles, which becomes a lifelong collaboration.

1987: Museum of Modern Art, New York, mounts first major retrospective of Lichtenstein's drawings.

1989: "Torpedo...Los!" sells at Christie's for a record $5.5 million.

1993-94: Guggenheim Museum, New York, presents a retrospective survey of Lichtenstein's paintings and sculpture.

Sept. 29, 1997: Dies of pneumonia at New York University Medical Center.

Source: Guggenheim Museum

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