Art Markets: Lichtenstein’s work parodies popular culture

Although Andy Warhol became the celebrity of Pop Art in the 1960s, he wasn’t the movement’s only leading light. Pop was in the air in New York City by 1960 and one of Warhol’s peers, Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), probably defined its aesthetic as precisely as anyone.

Like Warhol, Lichtenstein had studied art in school and worked in commercial design before crossing the line between art and advertising. He was inspired by the pulpy commercial art dismissed as banal by highbrow critics, especially by the advertisements and comic strips he used as the basis for his paintings. Lichtenstein’s most characteristic work emulated the dot color matrix and flat colors of mass-produced throwaway print jobs in Hong Kong. Where Warhol seemed to simply accept popular culture as a given or even to glorify it, Lichtenstein has been seen as offering an affectionate parody.

Lichtenstein was the product of the post-war education boom. His art school days interrupted by service in World War II, he resumed his education at Ohio State University on the GI Bill, attended graduate school, taught art and began fashioning a career as an artist in painting and ceramics, using fairy tales, children’s stories, landscapes and portraiture as subjects. The 1950s were busy years of gallery shows, teaching at various colleges and a critically important departure into commercial and industrial art. He designed logos for a catering company, worked as a draftsman and drew dial designs for volt and amp meters. He often returned home to New York City and settled there by 1960.

The turning point in his career came in 1961 when Manhattan’s prestigious Leo Castelli Gallery displayed his work, which by then had assumed the recognizable cartoon-derived imagery of Pop Art. A year later, the entire contents of his one-man show at Castelli were purchased by collectors before the exhibit opened to the public. He was a rising star in the firmament of the ‘60s.

Lichtenstein’s best known painting, Whaam! (1963), is an eye-popping large-scale image taken from a DC comic strip of a World War II dogfight complete with a speech bubble caption. Although Lichtenstein largely moved beyond the appropriation of comic book imagery after 1965, his work in that field remains controversial. Proponents of comics have been critical of what they see as the artist’s condescension. “Lichtenstein did no more or less for comics than Andy Warhol did for soup,” said Art Spiegelman, creator of the influential Maus graphic novel.

Although his Pop-Art paintings from the early ‘60s are what comes to mind for most of us when thinking of Lichtenstein, the artist lived for another 30 years and left behind a diverse body of work.

His catalog raisonne is chock full of his playful adaptations of 20th century pop culture and design in varied mediums including ceramics, sculpture-installation, works on paper, paintings, jewelry and prints. A six-piece set of ceramic-glazed dinnerware plates (1966), sporting his signature Benday dot design, sold at Phillips du Pury (NY) in 2008 for $5,000 (hammer).

His original works on panel incorporated his innovative use of mixed media. With Collage for Nude with Street Scene Painting (1995), Lichtenstein worked his 30- by 40-inch image of a reclining nude (appropriated from a romance comic) in magna, graphite, photographic tape and printed paper. The result confirms his mastery in collage technique and sold at Christie’s (NY) in 2009 for $1,314,500 (hammer).

With his most famous works derived from mass-produced commercial art, his interest in print-making was a natural direction. Starting with etchings and woodcuts, he expanded into embellished screenprints with foil and wax. Not always using paper as the support, he screened prints on cloth (moire), aluminum panel and rowlux (plastic). He mixed his mediums often using such combinations as lithograph and line-cut on paper.

His catalog of prints and multiples includes stylized renderings of important art movements of the 20th century, many of them done in series. Among them are the Expressionist Woodcut Series, the Surrealist Series, Homage to Picasso and Landscapes in the Chinese Style.

He depicted and simplified classical architectural elements in the Entablature Series (1976). As with his cartoon based paintings, Lichtenstein placed objects of mass production out of their context and into the field of fine art. The original design work was used for decorative mouldings. Along with other artworks, an original from this series was destroyed on 9-11 when the World Trade Center fell. Entablature VI, a collaged gloss screenprint, embellished with gold metallic foil, was scooped up by a collector in Japan in January for $2,886 (hammer).

Lichtenstein had many prominent admirers. Works From the Collection of Michael Crichton, in a sale held at Christie’s May 11, featured two of Lichtenstein’s works from the late film producer/director’s “pop heavy” art collection. Crichton was a friend of the artist and avid collector of 20th century powerhouse painters.

Another auction the same evening, Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Sale, featured Untitled Composition (1978), a significant mural from Lichtenstein’s Surrealist Series. Influenced by the Modern master Picasso, Lichtenstein pays tribute to his hero with a Cubist portrayal of a female, adds an homage to the Surrealist painter Rene Magritte with an alluring eyeball and references his own past works with a radiant sunrise in the lower right quadrant of the painting. The mural was exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1979. A presale estimate in the $4- to $6-million range suggests that Michael Jackson has a rival for the title of ‘King of Pop.’ ?

Mary Manion is associate director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, Wis. A columnist for Antique Trader since 2006, Manion is a member of the New England Appraisers Association.

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