Born: Manhattan, New York City, NY
“I don’t have big anxieties. I wish I did. I’d be much more interesting.”
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Roy Fox Lichtenstein was born in New York City in a family with a German-Jewish background. He grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with his father Milton, a real-estate broker, his mother Beatrice, a homemaker, and his younger sister Renee. As a child, Lichtenstein spent time listening to science fiction radio programs, visiting the American Museum of Natural History, building model airplanes, and drawing. As a teenager he nurtured his artistic interests by taking watercolor classes at Parsons School of Design, and in high school he started a jazz band.
In 1940, Lichtenstein began taking Reginald Marsh’s painting classes at the Art Students League, producing work very similar to Marsh’s social realist style. Later that year, Lichtenstein enrolled at Ohio State University (OSU), where he studied drawing and design along with botany, history, and literature. He created sculptural animal figures, as well as portraits and still life works influenced by the work of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. At OSU, Lichtenstein also took a class with Hoyt Leon Sherman, whose theories about the connection between vision and perception, or “organized perception,” became important concepts for Lichtenstein as his work evolved.
In 1943, Lichtenstein was drafted into the Army. As part of his tour of duty, he took engineering courses at De Paul University in Chicago. He also served as a clerk and draftsman, enlarging army newspaper cartoons for his commanding officer. He then traveled with the Army to England, France, Belgium, and Germany. After receiving an honorable discharge in 1946, the artist returned to OSU to complete his Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts. The next year he joined the graduate program at the University and served as an art instructor. His art at this time was inspired by aspects of Abstract Expressionism and biomorphic Surrealism.
In the next several years his work was included in gallery shows, such as a group exhibition at the Ten-Thirty Gallery in Cleveland, where he met his future wife Isabel Wilson, the gallery assistant at Ten-Thirty. By this stage, his paintings featured musicians, street workers, and racecar drivers rendered in biomorphic shapes and in a style that recalled the Surrealist work of Paul Klee. Over the next several years, Lichtenstein’s paintings featured birds and insects in this same Surrealist style, as well as medieval motifs, particularly imagery of knights and dragons. In addition to strictly two-dimensional paintings, Lichtenstein began nurturing what would become a long-standing interest in using multiple media; in his first solo show in New York, at Carlebach Gallery (1951), he exhibited three-dimensional assemblages of kings and horses made of wood, metal, and found objects.
Roy Lichtenstein played a critical role in subverting the skeptical view of commercial styles and subjects established by the Abstract Expressionists. By embracing “low” art such as comic books and popular illustration, Lichtenstein became one of the most important figures in the Pop art movement. While his paintings of cartoons and comics are his most recognizable work, he had a prolific and somewhat eclectic career that drew from Cubism, Surrealism, and Expressionism. But it is his re-imagining of popular culture through the lens of traditional art history that has remained a considerable influence to later generations of artists, as Pop art went on to significantly inform Postmodernism.