Drawing room

12th March 2004 at 00:00
Roy Lichtenstein 1923-1997

Roy Lichtenstein was born in New York. After graduating in fine arts, he taught and had various part-time jobs for 12 years before making his breakthrough into Pop in 1961, with paintings that shocked and excited New York. From then on, Lichtenstein maintained his bold style and mechanical method (including the iconic dots), and his ironic take on art, adapting his technique for sculpture and murals.

Helen Luckett introduces the Pop art world of Roy Lichtenstein now on show at London's Hayward Gallery

American Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein was fascinated by reflections. He painted reflections in mirrors, and in his paintings he reflected on his own and other people's art. Besides mirroring aspects of post-war American culture and consumerism - comic-strips, newspaper advertisements and commercial art - his pictures frequently refer to works by artists such as Cezanne, Picasso and Mondrian.

"Artist's Studio No. 1 (Look Mickey)" combines all these interests. Painted in 1973, about 10 years after he shot to fame, it features part of one of his first cartoon paintings as well as a more recent painting of mirrors, and makes references to works by 20th-century French masters . Far from being an image of Lichtenstein's own studio, this picture is based on a masterpiece of 1911 by Henri Matisse "The Red Studio", in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Like Matisse's painting, Lichtenstein's "studio" shows a carefully prepared exhibition of his art, but contains paintings within paintings, arranged in what appears to be a mail-order living room. Matisse's idea of art as a "comfortable armchair" has been pushed aside and replaced by an uncomfortable two-dimensional sofa, all hard lines and rigid frills, drawn from a furniture ad in the Yellow Pages. Not a relaxing art, but one that makes you sit up and start questioning.

"Artist's Studio No. 1 (Look Mickey)" takes its title from the picture hanging on the right. The original "Look Mickey" was the 1961 work with which Lichtenstein made his breakthrough into an entirely new kind of art. Painted from a bubble-gum wrapper, it enlarged a tiny cartoon image into a loud, brash canvas. The methods of cheap colour-printing - bold outlines, primary colours, and Benday dots (two different colours printed together to make a third colour - a process named after its inventor) to provide tones - were not just writ large, but painted in epic proportions. It was this, together with the assertion that what wrapped bubble gum, or sold household goods, could be art, which surprised and shocked people when Lichtenstein's paintings were first shown in New York.

The American critic Robert Rosenblum remembers the impact and excitement of that exhibition in 1962: "The gallery seemed to have been invaded by a sudden attack of the ugliest kind of reality that had always been kept far away from the sacred spaces where art was to be worshipped. [There were] crass emblems of American grass-roots truth - fast food, washing machines, comic strips. Magnified to the alarmingly large dimensions of an easel-painting, they provided a disturbingly accurate mirror of things we had lived with all the time but had never really looked at before."

Taken as a whole, "Artist's Studio No. 1 (Look Mickey)" amounts to a brief inventory of Lichtenstein's style and technique from the moment he made Pop art his domain until the early 1970s. The mirror painting on the side wall is partly made up of the Benday dots which quickly became his signature, while the diagonal stripes on the floor (and on the back of the canvas propped against the door) were a recently introduced device which added a new optical quality to his paintings. The heavily shadowed frieze derives from the entablature architectural paintings which he was working on at the time, while the couch and door are from earlier drawings. Landscape, still life and stretcher frame paintings also have cameo roles.

The red, yellow and blue primary colours of his first Pop paintings are joined by green and the pastel hues and grey tones he added in later works. And the paint media - oil, magna (an acrylic-based paint) and sand - reflect the materials he worked with over the period. In all this Lichtenstein takes an ironic look at his own work while quoting from the great masters of Modernism: juggling with elements from Matisse, borrowing a balustrade from Fernand Leger and glancing at Cubism.

As he pointed out, "all my art is in some way about other art, even if the other art is cartoons". He went on to paint pictures triggered in different ways by other styles of 20th-century art, while his subject matter and technique evolved and mutated, constantly involving reflection and illusion, allusion and refraction.

Lichtenstein began his working life as a teacher and there was always a teacherly edge to his work. He wanted to make people aware of their own perceptions by exposing illusions and offering new ways of seeing. He said:

"I show the traps you fall into when you believe the things that are painted are real." Even the early cartoon images, which appear to be faithful reproductions of their sources, are different from the originals. As Lichtenstein explained: "The difference is often not great, but it is crucial."

By the standards of today's young British artists, Lichtenstein was a late developer. He was in his late 30s when his first Pop paintings hit the big time, and after many years of teaching and doing part-time design jobs in out-of-the-way places like Oswego in New York State, it took him a long time to believe in his success. He would joke: "I know any minute someone's going to come and shake me and say, 'Mr Lichtenstein, Mr Lichtenstein, it's time for your pills', and I'll be back in Oswego, in a wheelchair."

This painting is part of the Roy Lichtenstein exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London, until May 16. This is the first in-depth exhibition of Lichtenstein's paintings and drawings in the UK for 35 years. Group bookings and information, Tel: 0870 165 6000. Teachers' notes can be downloaded from www.hayward.org.uk The official Roy Lichtenstein website includes links to museums and other sites:www.lichtensteinfoundation.org

Helen Luckett is education officer at the Hayward Gallery, London

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