© Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
[AUDIO: Maybelline Television Ad, 1965
“Make sure your eyes are eloquent, beautiful. Make sure with Maybelline, the eye makeup that brings out hidden loveliness.”]
By appropriating and altering images culled from advertising and comic strips, then placing them in an art context, Roy Lichtenstein exposed how vacant the original source material really was. As consumers we have been trained in a commercial visual shorthand—a language rarely used in fine art prior to the 1960s. In a 1966 interview, Roy Lichtenstein said:
ROY LICHTENSTEIN ARCHIVAL
Almost all of the landscape, all of our environment, seems to be made up partially of the desire to sell products. This is the landscape that I’m interested in portraying, and I’m also not only portraying it but I’m working in the style of it…
This blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman is a stand-in for all women and the idealization of their beauty. By cropping the image so close to her face, isolating a fraction of the comic strip narrative, Lichtenstein portrays this woman as an empty vessel—she could be Eve or she could be the girl next door.
[AUDIO: excerpt from “I’m Sorry” by Brenda Lee, 1960.
“I’m sorry....so sorry, that I was such a fool...”]
Though Roy Lichtenstein’s style of comic-derived pop art is now well known, it was radical in the early 1960s. Appropriating the visual language of American mass culture, such as Mickey Mouse, Coca-Cola, and the “funny pages,” Lichtenstein found his artistic voice by making paintings that at first did not appear to be art. This was his cover —part camouflage and part red herring — that allowed him to insert his own practice into the art historical milieu; he was in dialogue with the greats, reprising themes from antiquity. I...I’m Sorry! is a portrait of Eve as a modern-day woman. Lichtenstein renders her apology unclear, revealing layers of interpretation: Is she apologizing for eating the forbidden fruit from the tree? Is she breaking our hearts? Is she sincere with her stammering words? Her simplified features belie the nuanced complexities of her declaration.
Roy Lichtenstein is one of the founders of American Pop art. He was born in New York, the son of a real estate agent and homemaker, and was part of a generation whose young adulthood experiences were defined by World War II. He studied with artist Reginald Marsh at the Art Students League and went on to attend and make art at Ohio State University. His academic life at OSU was interrupted by the war and service in the infantry. His early work was highly interested in American mythologies and frequently referred to images of early American history taken from genre painting.
Lichtenstein’s painting changed radically in the early 1960s. He began to use imagery found in advertising and comic books; sources that would have been considered outside of art’s usual subject matter and formal concerns. Over the course of decades, however, Lichtenstein’s innovations came to symbolize art’s collision with popular culture, a collision that continues to develop today. From comic exaggerations of advertising to images of war, cartoon icons to consumer goods, anything and everything printed and distributed in American culture was a potential subject for Lichtenstein’s painting.
While the subject matter of Lichtenstein’s work often takes center stage, his engagement with the conventions of printing and advertising, and how those conventions affect vision, was of central importance to his studio practice. Benday dots, hatch marks, blocked coloring and shadows, and the delineation of forms with simple black lines became part of Lichtenstein’s toolbox. These strategies of mechanized visual shorthand were employed to reexamine art history through the lens of contemporary life.
In five thousand paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, murals, and other objects, Lichtenstein systematically studied and experimented with many of the concerns, philosophies, and genres of art. He was particularly interested in how painting represents the world, and how various art movements, like impressionism, cubism, and expressionism, put forth different claims about what that representation was capable of achieving. Lichtenstein reproduces, exaggerates, puns, parodies, satirizes, and, most importantly, tests these theories and approaches in a body of work that has become foundational to any understanding of post-war American art.