Roy Lichtenstein's pulpy, dot-covered paintings may look as if they were mass-produced by machines. But nothing could be further from the truth
Black paintwork, white brickwork, in tree-lined Greenwich Village. We’re spitting distance from Bleecker, whose elongated vowels once made music for Simon and Garfunkel and Steely Dan. When the floodwaters of the nearby Hudson inched upward and east during Hurricane Sandy, they ceased their creep yards from the steps outside.
Inside are the wood floors and fireplace of the area’s typical brownstone, but the cosy effect ends when an alcove ‘bookcase’ turns revolving door, stairway leading downwards. It’s straight from the pages of Agatha Christie, even Indiana Jones.
This is one of two entries (the other far less thrilling) to the cavernous room beneath that was once Roy Lichtenstein’s studio. The house above was used as a bolthole for visiting friends and family, ensuring he could work undisturbed, day in, day out. His watch was rigorous: 10 to 6, with 90 minutes for lunch.
The building is now home to the Lichtenstein Foundation, where every reference to his work, even wrapping paper, is assiduously filed away alongside the artist’s sketchbooks, scrapbooks and working materials. The studio is set up as it was when he was alive. Charts by the sink show dots and lines in every size, colour and combination. The walls have wooden racks designed to tip forward, preventing paint drip. One of his vast murals still hangs there – an incongruous combination of Etruscan meets Henry Moore meets a slice of Swiss cheese.
Aside a scalpel-scored table worktable stands the paint-splattered stool at which the artist whilst drafting and redrafting his compositions. And this is the thing about Lichtenstein. His finished works look so effortless, so without their maker’s mark that we rarely think of the hours, methods and materials that went into their producing. He sought to erase all trace of the selective artist engaged in difficult work. He is as apt to slip through our pressing fingers, as one observer put it, as drops of liquid mercury.
Roy Fox Lichtenstein had a long, uncommonly successful career, even if he did spend most of it in his studio rather than out basking in its rewards. With a retrospective of his work – the first since his death from pneumonia in 1997 aged 73 – opening at the Tate this month, comes the chance to assess the painterly approach behind the Pop inspired sheen, and it isn't so hands-off after all.
Lichtenstein, born and raised in 1930s Manhattan, began his creative career at a time when Abstract Expressionism reigned supreme, emotional work predicated on a belief that each work is impossible to repeat. Artists sought to impress upon their public a unique signature that would reveal their inner sensibility. Brushwork, the hand-drawn line – these were the lauded aim.
Now, exiting the woodwork, were artists like Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol, using banal subjects to skewer such bloated clichés. The Pop crew drew plugs, step-on trash cans, dollar bills and Don Draper’s fizzy saviour, Alka Seltzer. But while most still used a grainy, obviously hand-drawn hatching or line to convey realism, Lichtenstein went a step further.
“I’d always wanted to know the difference between a mark that was art and one that wasn’t” he said, “so l chose among the crudest types of illustration – product packaging, mail order catalogues.” It provided the type of drawing that was most opposite individual expression and its lack of nuance appealed greatly. “I don’t care what a cup of coffee looks like” he said. “I only care about how it’s drawn.”
Still Life with Glass and Peeled Lemon (1972)
The five surviving composition books in his studio reveal pages of kitsch clippings organised by theme: pressure cookers, alarm clocks, rolodexes, jars of apple sauce, heads of lettuce, open fridges. He liked typography, especially numbers, and baby boom phrases like “No Money Down!” The cartoons he plundered were pulpy, grimy, all eyes and tears and camera zoom. He liked a lot of emotional charge – disappointment in love, the heat of battle.
He adopted their unique lexicon for things like shine (a star) and shading (‘Benday’ dots). In early works he used a dog-grooming brush covered in paint to make the dots, filling in blotchy patches by hand, but over the years he switched to metal screens and eventually custom-made stencils.
In contrast to his machine-made sources, his paintings involved time-consuming processes. His daily routines were observed by assistants who remember his sense of humour “he liked tricks, bad jokes… he had a lovely giggle… But he was very serious about [his] orderly, separated, rational procedure.”
Whaam! (Study) (1963)
Like most artists, he began with drawings, and his preserved sketchbooks show the changes, and variations necessary to create something that looked mass-produced. Next he would create a collage, using sheets of paper painted in his trademark colours. “I collage over and over again” he said, “so I’m really working with it in the same way you would with an Expressionist work, but I don’t want traces of all that activity going on.”
At dusk, he would project it onto canvas, transferring in pencil before outlining with black tape, clarified with a razor and guitar pick. Once the structure was complete, he would collage various sizes and densities of dots and diagonal stripes. Throughout, he would use a rotating easel – his own design - that ensured the painting’s power operated in all orientations. He finished off with multiple coats of acrylic colour, a layer of varnish in-between, to achieve the uninflected surface colour that replicated machine-printing to a tee.
Lichtenstein spent half a century effacing his efforts from view. In the later works it is almost impossible to find his trace. Perhaps the most exhilarating conclusion to his mission though, came a little earlier in his career, when he painted a series of mirrors. They are little known works, among his most abstract and employ all of the tricks associated with pulp printing – dots, diagonals, waves of white – to convey a silver surface. They are missing one thing though: a reflection. The artist has removed himself entirely from the picture.
Lichtenstein: A Retrospective’ is at Tate Modern, London SE1, from February 21 until May 27