Roy Lichtenstein self-portrait.


Born: 1923 : : : Died: 1997
Job Description: Painter
Worked in: "Fine" arts
Noted for: Reaping millions from the original work of real artists, and not even giving them credit
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Roy Lichtenstein was not a cartoonist, or at least his supporters/apologists didn't claim he was. So what makes him a fit topic for this Web site? Simple. He made his reputation and his fortune by putting other people's cartoons on canvas, claiming them as his own work, and selling them to gallery-goers for thousands of times what the real …

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… creators were paid for their work when it was originally published in a comic book — as much as $5.5 million for a single piece of non-original "art". Of course he's a legitimate topic for this Web site.

Lichtenstein (probably no relation) was born October 27, 1923 in New York City. He studied Fine Arts at Ohio State University, interrupted by being drafted into the U.S. Army, where he served from 1943 to '46. He finally got his MFA from Ohio State in 1949, so anybody could tell, just from his academic credentials, that he was a sure-fire creator. In the years that followed, he earned a living in various art-related day jobs while pursuing a career in the galleries. By the early 1950s, he was starring in one-man shows. He showed an early interest in what was later called Pop Art, which takes the point of view that commercial art (i.e., that made in pursuit of living expenses, at rates that can sustain nobody more worthy of the artistic soul's concern than common wage slaves) is simply stuff found in the environment, and not the result of actual human creativity.

In 1961, he chose a Mickey Mouse image as his subject matter, but the response of The Walt Disney Company, widely known for aggressively protecting its trademarks, caused him to decide their property wasn't a good source of "inspiration". In '63, he started using clipped panels from comic books, mostly published by DC Comics in their war and romance lines, as his subjects.

For years, Lichtenstein found artists like Tony Abruzzo (Young Romance), Russ Heath (The Haunted Tank) and Irv Novick (Captain Storm) ideal sources of inspiration, who didn't even resist his depredations. Having sold their work to DC, they had no legal standing to claim it; and DC didn't seem to mind Lichtenstein depriving its individual panels of their story context and reproducing them for sale.

His favorite victim, or at least the one he most often plagiarized, was Novick. This may be because Novick's work most precisely epitomized the supposed banality he was apparently striving to contrast with the "fine arts" sensibility his marks were paying for. But it's worth noting that Novick had been his superior officer during the early part of his stint in the Army, a position that's been known to inspire resentment and thoughts of revenge, especially among draftees. It's said the best revenge is living well, and Lichtenstein become a millionaire, largely from Novick's work, while Novick himself remained a working stiff.

Lichtenstein worked by using an opaque projector to put the actual panels on the canvas, the better to reproduce each line exactly. He often emphasized the dot patterns used in comic book printing, making sure to rub the viewer's nose in its declassé source.

Some people think comics enthusiasts should be grateful to Lichtenstein, who got the objects of their interest into high-tone galleries. But others point out that he did so by stripping away its essence, the fact that it functions as comics, i.e., tells a story. He was showing contempt for both the comics and his own customers, by demonstrating that those people will accept a picture of a tiny piece of a comic book as priceless art, while the comic book itself, to them, remains worthless trash.

Roy Lichtenstein died of pneumonia on September 29, 1997, and was widely mourned by the "art" community. He does have his detractors, but any fool can point out the emperor is naked. At the end of the day, however, the fool is still a fool, and the emperor is still the emperor.


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Text ©2008 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Roy Lichtenstein estate.