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The Prophetic Paintings of Roy Lichtenstein

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Roy Lichtenstein's "Hopeless"—from comic to fine art, Lichtenstein transforms the image.

Roy Lichtenstein's "Hopeless"—from comic to fine art, Lichtenstein transforms the image.

Comic Sources to Fine Art: The Transformation

Thick black outlines permeate the image, with no variations in shading, only size and shape. Blocks of yellow between these black lines form a blonde's hair, which surrounds her tan face. Upon closer inspection, Ben-Day dots are visible, making up the woman's pale complexion.

Black lines form her eyebrows and facial features. Once again, Ben-Day dots are used, this time, to form her sad blue eyes, while a white tear outlined in black runs down her face. Single blocks of color represent a background and a foreground. A thought bubble above her head allows the viewer a glimpse into the subject's mind. The composition is one that is easy to take in at first glance, a sad woman lamenting her failed relationship.

This image could easily be part of a larger narrative like a comic book, but here the image is Roy Lichtenstein's oil painting Hopeless from 1963. This image could be seen on display in a museum or reproduced in a book, but unlike Lichtenstein's source material, it is not mass circulated, and it is certainly not cheap or easy to purchase the way a comic book is.

This pop artist, through his use of techniques of mass media and appropriation of widely circulated subject matter, mostly advertisements, and cartoons, made a statement about art, culture, and a prediction about what would soon become of both.

Lichtenstein's Approach to Art

To understand how the work of Lichtenstein can be interpreted it is best to first examine what the artist does to his subject matter. How does he transform the images from comic books when he reproduces them by hand on canvas? The image is enlarged, and often, the angle is changed, and some of the subject matter is eliminated. For example, words and background motifs that are not important to the main image are often removed.

His elimination of certain details and the addition of others are important in unifying the composition, making it more balanced and formally structured. The image is flattened as much as possible, causing the figure and ground space to merge. Essentially, Lichtenstein transformed a copy into an original work of art (Mercurio, 2010, 43).

Lichtenstein's Use of the Speech Bubble

Lichtenstein also uses the speech bubble in an effective manner and changes the shape of the balloon and the size, so that it echoes the image and unifies it. Albert Boine (1968-69) argues in an article for Art Journal that the use of the speech bubble is the most important aspect of compositional structure in Lichtenstein's work (156). Without the speech bubble, the composition would lack the comic strip connection to the point that the painting would become ineffective and unimportant.

It is also interesting to note how the speech bubble allows us insight into the image, into what the subject in the painting is thinking and feeling. For example, in Hopeless without the use of the speech bubble, we would have no idea why the woman is crying, but because of it, we know that she is saddened by a relationship that has not worked out.

The Influence of Comics in Lichtenstein's Work

There is also an element of agitation in Lichtenstein's comic-influenced works. His images illustrate a moment of action that has been captured. This snapshot glance at a moment in time allows the paintings to stand alone, removed from their narrative content, and brought into the world of fine art. Here the work can be viewed and interpreted without the underlying story that was included in the original comic.

The fact that he allows the image to stand alone without the narrative is a very important aspect of his transformation. This interrupts the fast-paced consumption of the mass media imagery, the thoughtless reading of a simple comic (Busche. 1989, 14). The viewer is then asked to look closer, delve deeper, and think about what is being represented.

Lichtenstein reworks the comic strip image as a presentation of formal properties that represent a cliché or a piece of mass media, thereby making the statement that we are emerged in mass media and cannot escape it, even in the world of fine art, which is being consumed by commercialism (19).

The True Subject Matter of Lichtenstein's Work

The subject matter in Lichtenstein's work cannot be ignored completely. The use of war and romance comics asks us to think about the consequences of war, question values once taken for granted by Americans, and question the techniques used by mass media to drive the consumerist society that is raging in post-war America.

The romance-themed images ask us to question our own priorities, question our overdramatic love lives, our love of movies and fantasy, and what is blinding us or distracting us from the real problems in American society. He uses the mediums of the masses, the tools for the blinders, to make us contemplate what is going on in our lives and in the world at large. He shows us a mirror of ourselves, of what was happening right then in America and what will happen if we continue to be so involved and obsessed with mass media, consumerism, and commercialism.

His use of wartime heroes is easily a political statement about the war, but could it also be a statement about the abstract expressionist painter and his image as a modernist hero? He makes a statement about the idea of the brilliant artist, the abstract expressionist idea that art comes from within and is filled with feeling and desire and subconscious reasoning for the work.

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When examining the entire context of Lichtenstein’s career, from his early works with comics and advertisements, through his continued use of this comic book style in representing other motifs, like the still life and brushstrokes series, it becomes evident that his true subject matter is art itself.

This image shows how Lichtenstein has transformed his source from a comic to "fine" art.

This image shows how Lichtenstein has transformed his source from a comic to "fine" art.

Twice Removed: Lichtenstein's Art as an "Intensification" of Reality

In an interview, Lichtenstein explains that pop art, since it looks like the real thing and not a representation of the thing, is an intensification (Swenson. 1963, 339). He uses a removed and mechanical style to express emotion, and in doing so, he represents the cliché that we all live in, the world of culture and mass media of post-war America. He represents a twice-removed reality by taking the false reality of the media and editing it, re-representing it in the fine art world (Mercurio. 2010, 43).

Blurred Lines

Despite the things Lichtenstein does to change his subject matter, they still end up looking like the comic books that the source matter was derived from. This element of his work blurs the line between what is hand-painted and what is mechanically reproduced. This then becomes more important than the images that are actually represented, especially in the early work of the 1960s.

Lichtenstein's paintings are a combination of handwork and industrial or mechanical methods, to the point where the distinctions cannot be distinguished by the eye of the viewer. This blurring of lines between man and machine "shifted attention away from content and to the method of use (35).”

By blurring the lines between the hand and the mechanical process, he proves that the eye cannot discern the difference between techniques of fine art production and that of the mass media. This causes his work to enter a very conceptual realm where the work itself relies very little on the actual subject matter and more on the technique he used to produce it.

The Decay of the Modern Hero

His work is always done in a very distinct "recomposed" style; Mike Lobel coined the phrase "Lichtensteinize (Bois, 485)" to explain what he does to his sources when he appropriates them. Lobel also claims that Lichtenstein clung to modernist notions of originality and creativity (485). Lichtenstein does not seem to cling to these notions as much as he recognizes them. He seems to understand that modernism is on the verge of decay, of death, yet it is not completely over.

Lichtenstein: A Rule-Breaker With a Thorough Understanding of History and Culture

When looking at Lichtenstein's career as a whole, we see that he had a vast understanding and knowledge of the European masters, yet he also has an understanding of the tools of the mass media and the state of American culture. His work shows an understanding that the art world can no longer cling to the boundaries that modernism has built; the rules that it has held fast to for so long are becoming old and outdated.

Modern Art Representing the Disintegration of Heroic Artists

Lichtenstein's work represents the disintegration of the modernist idea of the heroic artists and predicts the post-modern way of thinking that was developing at the time of his work. Lichtenstein's work is in the vein of Modernism; this is undeniable by his appropriation of the images, the way he unites and changes his forms and figures, making the canvas somewhat minimal, flattened, and self-contained.

According to the standards of Clement Greenberg and his followers, Lichtenstein’s work falls into the category of modern painting, it is a flat, self-contained image, yet the subject matter that he uses is kitschy, which would thus pose a problem to those who were adhering to Greenberg‘s theory. Lichtenstein's work then is more of a prediction of post-modernism and of the falling and failing of the boundaries between high and low culture. It is a statement of what will happen, of what has happened.

Brushstroke with splatter—clearly, this is a statement about the abstract expressionist, the hero of the modern art world.

Brushstroke with splatter—clearly, this is a statement about the abstract expressionist, the hero of the modern art world.

The Demand to Reunite Life and Art

By 1964, he had reached his goal of making his paintings look like they were industrially produced, and he began to transfer his comic-strip style to other motifs, like his brushstrokes series, which is another obvious statement about the painterly abstract expressionist hero. It is about the romantic history of art and the importance that the brushstroke plays in a painting (Mercurio. 221).

He also converts his comic strip style to other genres, such as landscapes and still life, which are integral parts of the history of Western modernist painting. This again emphasizes the importance of art's history in his work. Lichtenstein's career came at a time when art was highly separated from daily life. Much of the art before pop art and the art that competed with pop art were minimal and devoid of actual subject matter.

Lichtenstein's Art: The Intersection of Life and Art

Lichtenstein’s art demands that art and life be reunited. It insists that the now be seen and contemplated and reflected on. It is not about an aesthetic experience or an experience that is separated from the day to day, but it is instead an in-your-face representation of that which is everyday and ordinary, that which must be taken into consideration, the state of America right now, as well as the state of the art world.

The statement that life reflects art and art reflects life must be applied while considering Lichtenstein's use of comic imagery because he draws his inspiration from the real, everyday world. If life and art both reflect one another, then it is also safe to assume that high culture/fine art must also reflect low culture and the commercial art that is delivered by the mass media, and vice versa.

In a brief, one-page essay by Keith Roberts for The Burlington Magazine (1967) provides an interesting example of this phenomenon. Lichtenstein's work was heavily influenced by advertisements, and now his work has become the inspiration of an advertising company called Red Star Parcels. This company has made changes to the typical advertisement and replaced it with the format of a Lichtenstein painting, with simplified comic book characters and a unifying speech bubble (514).

Coming Full Circle: Art Reflects Life

This example shows how art and mass media have come full circle. Lichtenstein first drew his influence from ads and comic strips producing even more polished and easily viewed images in the setting of the fine art world, then the advertising media took these edited images and reworked them to suit the needs of the advertiser.

It is possible that another artist could come along and take these images, edit them to their liking and produce some sort of artwork. This is a concrete example of the idea that art reflects life, or in fact, that mass media and fine art are interconnected, intertwined to the point in this century of being inseparable and at times, indistinguishable.

Proof in the Postmodernism

We can see now that enough time has passed and his "prediction" has come true. We have arrived at a place in art that is very blurred, very post-modernist, and overall, very complicated. Through Lichtenstein's work, we can see that without modernism, post-modernism cannot and could not ever exist.

Due to industrialization, technology, mass media, globalization, and the culture at large, there is no longer a way to hold up boundaries and distinctions between what is high and low, between that which is commercial and that which is pure, fine art. These boundaries have been merging for a very long time.

Lichtenstein was not the only artist who has made these kinds of statements and predictions with his work, but his early use of comics shows us that he was thinking differently; he was looking at different things for source materials. He understood the breakdown that was happening in American culture, and he took it and used it to make works that are very well known and generally well-liked, and even if they are not like they make a statement that is important. "In many other ways, too, Lichtenstein seems a prophet" (Mercurio, 31).

This image blurs the lines of the still life genre, well known in fine art, with that of a comic or a cartoon.

This image blurs the lines of the still life genre, well known in fine art, with that of a comic or a cartoon.


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  • Boime, Albert. "Roy Lichtenstein and the Comic Strip." Art Journal Vol. 28, No. 2, Winter 1968-69, 155-159.
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  • Busche, Ernst A. Roy Lichtenstein:Pop Paintings: 1961-1969. S.I. : Schirmer, 1989.
  • "Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein." Last modified 2000,
  • Mercurio, Gianni. Roy Lichtenstein: Meditations on Art. Milano: Skira, 2010.
  • Roberts, Keith. "Roy Lichtenstein and the Popular Image." The Burlington Magazine Vol. 118, No. 880, July 1976, 514-515.
  • (accessed 4/3/2012)
  • Smith, Roberta. "High and Low Culture Meet on a One-Way Street." New York Times, Oct. 5, 1990.
  • one-way-street.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm (accessed 4/4/2012)

Brief Documentary on Lichtenstein's Art

Look Mickey

Lichetenstein was a forerunner of the Pop Surrealism movement, which takes pop culture icons and turns them into fine art.

Lichetenstein was a forerunner of the Pop Surrealism movement, which takes pop culture icons and turns them into fine art.


John M. Spezeski from Boston on April 08, 2015:

I like picture with Donald and Mickey