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It's unfortunate, but we all tend to do it. We pigeonhole artists, even those of us who should know better. We forever think of Grant Wood as Gothically American. We associate Picasso with Cubism 60 years after he painted his last Cubist work. We think first of de Kooning's butt-ugly, buxom broads, Cézanne’s mountain, and Norman Rockwell is forever tagged an illustrator. Roy Lichtenstein suffers the same fate. Comic strip paintings...that's what we think of first and perhaps solely as Roy's work. He painted his first one, Look, Mickey! in 1961. He painted his last one in 1969. That's eight years. He was born in 1923. He died in 1997. What did he do before 1961 and after 1969? If you're drawing a blank, even one with his trademark ben day dots, you're not alone in your ignorance.

After the Second World War, like millions of other GI's, Roy went to college. He studied art at Ohio State University, receiving a master’s degree from there in 1951. One of his earliest works is a childlike, nearly abstract parody, Washington Crossing the Delaware--not a ben day dot in sight. He worked for a department store in Cleveland, doing window displays, for Republic Steel doing metal designs, and all the while made frequent trips to New York City to sit in the Cedar Bar, too shy to introduce himself to the likes of de Kooning, Pollock, Kline and the other New York School stars of that period. He was finding his way, imitating Picasso, Fragonard, Klee and other art icons, always with tongue firmly planted in cheek. He painted everything in every style, from medieval subjects to anthropomorphic vegetation. Before the decade of the 50s was over he was teaching at Rutgers University and becoming acquainted with fellow Pop artists such as Klaus Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg. Then, with Look, Mickey, he completely abandoned expressionism. In fact, one might say he actively combated it.

We know what happened in the sixties. His style became set. He never abandoned that. What he did abandon were the comics. He moved on to parodies of other artists' work, Cézanne, Manet, Monet, even artists from the Renaissance such as Leonardo and Raphael. He painted brush strokes, taking POP shots at the free brushwork of the Abstract Expressionist his Pop Art had dethroned. He even sculpted brush strokes out of painted stainless steel, always with his heavy, cartoonish outlines, brilliant, primary, solid colours, and his ever-present dots. As time went on, he began to abandon the flatness of his earlier work in favour of a stylised chiaroscuro, varying the size of his dots to create curved surfaces. In the nineties, he began to paint nudes, as in his 1994 Nude with Yellow Flower. In it, he plays, somewhat illogically with chiaroscuro; not so much in modelling his figure, but in suggesting areas of shadow in an otherwise linear design traditionally associated with his work. There are no speech balloons. It's a female nude with a cordless phone, contemplating what appears to be a carnation. It's nothing like you what would ever find in a comic book.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
18 May 1999

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