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Roy Lichtenstein: All About Art

October 23, 2004 - February 22, 2005


The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will present Roy Lichtenstein: All About Art, on view October 23, 2004, through February 22, 2005. This is the first major exhibition of Lichtenstein's work at a Bay Area museum, and SFMOMA is its only U.S. venue. (right: Roy Lichtenstein, ART, 1962; oil on canvas; 39 3/4 x 71 1/2 invhes. Gordon Locksley and Dr. George T. Shea Collection; © The Estate of Roy Lichtenstein)

This major exhibition features approximately eighty paintings and drawings by Lichtenstein (1923­1997) and traces the artist's fascination with the painted image and the act of art-making over his nearly forty-year career. Best known as a pop artist of the 1960s, Lichtenstein paraphrased a wide range of visual sources in his work, including comic books, master works by artists such as Monet and Picasso, and the accoutrements of art-making itself: stretchers, mirrors, brushstrokes, and studios. His interrogation of both the iconography and mechanics of painting reveals a knowledge of and affection for art that resulted in an unmistakably original body of work. Organized by the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, Denmark, the exhibition travels to the Hayward Gallery, London, and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, in advance of its arrival at SFMOMA.

The San Francisco presentation of Roy Lichtenstein: All About Art is organized by Madeleine Grynsztejn, Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture. Grynsztejn explains, "SFMOMA has long had a special affinity for the work of Roy Lichtenstein and other pop artists. We are proud to offer our community its first in-depth look at this well-known artist."

Lichtenstein was born into a middle-class family in New York City in 1923. After serving in active military duty in Europe from 1943 to 1945, Lichtenstein pursued his interest in art at Ohio State University, first as an art student and later as an instructor. He made art in a variety of idioms throughout most of the 1950s, including Cubism and Abstract Expressionism. Having only modest success in his art career, Lichtenstein supported himself with a variety of jobs until he began teaching in 1958, first in New York and then at Rutgers University in New Jersey. It was there that Lichtenstein came in contact with a new generation of artists and teachers, including Allan Kaprow, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, and others, who offered a liberating approach to art centered in everyday life (as expressed in staged 'happenings,' forerunners of Performance art).

In the summer of 1961, at the age of thirty-seven, Lichtenstein made a complete break from his previous paintings and drawings, beginning the work that would become widely recognized as his signature style; Lichtenstein's painting Look Mickey, 1961, signaled this transition. Though a few years earlier Lichtenstein had made some ink drawings of Disney characters, they were rendered in a sketchy, expressionist manner. This new picture seemed to be a faithful reproduction of a cartoon image-with its banal humor and speech bubble-rendered in the inexpressive lines and flat colors of commercial printing. The art world of the early sixties was poised for a dramatic change, yet even in this atmosphere Lichtenstein's use of the lowly, "artless" cartoon was a challenge to the traditions of fine art. He swiftly found unprecedented success with this new work, however. Within months, Leo Castelli, an influential New York art dealer, took on Lichtenstein and gave him a show in early 1962, which earned the artist almost instant notoriety. In 1964 Life magazine ran a profile of the artist under the headline "Is He the Worst Artist in the U.S.?" Lichtenstein had found his niche in the world of post-abstract expressionist Pop art. (right: Roy Lichtenstein, Forget It, Forget Me, 1962; oil and Magna on canvas; 80 x 68 inches. Collection of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University; Gevirtz-Mnuchin Purchase Fund; © The Estate of Roy Lichtenstein)

Lichtenstein's interest in comic-book and advertising images was primarily formal, translating their simple graphic style, black outlines, and flat colors into his paintings. He was particularly drawn to the way cartoons could express "violent emotion and passion in a completely mechanical and removed style." By incorporating clichéd character types in his paintings -- the tough man of action or the swooning, tearful woman -- Lichtenstein ironically removed them from their original context and placed them in the realm of fine art. Despite the apparently direct relationship between his art and the cartoon sources, Lichtenstein described his process of selecting and transforming images as one of "seeing, composing, and unifying." His drawings reflect how deftly and freely he could adjust the balance of forms, color, line, and detail; these measured studies for paintings were scaled up and projected onto canvas to be enlarged and redrawn. This process led him to adopt the use of benday dots, which quickly became his signature mark. Just as in the comics, Lichtenstein used these dots in his paintings to convey surface, tone, shading, and form; yet unlike the mechanically printed originals, Lichtenstein's dots were painted by hand on canvas with brush or stencil. (right: Roy Lichtenstein, In the Car, 1963; oil and Magna on canvas; 30 x 40 inches. Private collection; © The Estate of Roy Lichtenstein)

Roy Lichtenstein: All About Art includes a thorough selection of these groundbreaking works, including some of the artist's earliest experiments with cartoon imagery ( Look Mickey, 1961; Popeye, 1961), a group of early monochrome paintings of domestic scenes ( Washing Machine, 1961; Tire, 1962; Golf Ball, 1962), and the classic war and romance images ( Kiss V, 1962; Forget It! Forget Me!, 1962; Whaam!, 1963). But the exhibition's chronological presentation places these early works in the context of Lichtenstein's lifelong interest in the process of art-making, focusing particularly on the way imagery is conventionalized in the mass media.

Later works in the exhibition show the artist's engagements with traditional artistic genres such as landscape (Sussex, 1964) and still life (Still Life with Glass and Peeled Lemon, 1972), as well as his revisions of Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism (Rouen Cathedral, 1969; Yellow Brushstroke I, 1965). Still other works refer to the artist's interest in the mechanics of art-making (Compositions II, 1964; Stretcher Frame with Cross Bars III, 1968), while his work of the seventies and early eighties returns again to the vocabulary of art history-particularly Surrealism (Portrait, 1977; Figures in Landscape, 1977) -- and, for the first time, to his own oeuvre (Artist's Studio No. 1 [Look Mickey], 1973). The show concludes with Lichtenstein's final two bodies of work: a group of interior scenes that make sophisticated visual puns on reality versus representation (Interior with Exterior, 1991) and the large-scale landscapes, executed shortly before his death, that derive from the tradition of landscape painting in China (Vista with Bridge, 1996).

SFMOMA's Education Department will present a variety of programs and public lectures to further enhance visitors' experience of the exhibition. On the exhibition's opening day, Saturday, October 23, at 2 p.m., Irving Blum, the legendary art dealer whose Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles was one of the first galleries to show Pop art, will be a guest speaker. The talk will be held in the Museum's Phyllis Wattis Theater. A special audio tour offering critical insight into Roy Lichtenstein: All About Art will be available in the galleries.

A fully illustrated catalogue, published by the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, with minor revisions for the American presentation at SFMOMA, accompanies the exhibition. It includes essays by the exhibition's curator, Paul Erik Tøjner, and Michael Lobel, Avis Berman, and Jack Cowart, together with transcripts of David Sylvester's 1997 interview with the artist and a chronology of the artist's life. The catalogue is available at the SFMOMA Museum Store.

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