Was Roy Lichtenstein an Innovator or a Copycat?

 

Pop Art legend Roy Lichtenstein made his name during the 1950s and 1960s with enlarged comic book excerpts, painted on a vast scale in flat, bold colors, and adorned with his trademark Ben-Day dots. Today his distinctive style, featuring emotional women, fighter jets and onomatopoeic word writ large has become ubiquitous with the Pop Art movement. Like many Pop Art and postmodern artists, Lichtenstein relied on ‘appropriation’ to make his art, lifting pre-existing imagery and transforming it into works of art. But in recent decades, the artist has faced a backlash from the comic book artists whose illustrations he reimagined into works of art worth multi-million dollars, while some have even accused him of outright plagiarism. We take a look at the case for and against Lichtenstein’s art process.

Lichtenstein Modified the Original Images

Lichtenstein’s pencil sketch design for Whaam!
Lichtenstein’s pencil sketch design for Whaam!, 1963

One of the strongest arguments in Lichtenstein’s defense is that he edited and amended the comic book excerpts he was working from in order to stamp his own identity onto the individual works of art. Lichtenstein had a multi-stage process for designing and completing his artworks. After choosing a comic-book scene to replicate, he made a series of sketches in pencil to redesign the original. He then projected his new design onto canvas using a projector and traced the outlines. When filling in the design, he made use of rulers and stencils to achieve a seamless, digital finish. 

Examples

Whaam! By Roy Lichtenstein, 1963, Tate
Whaam! By Roy Lichtenstein, 1963, Tate, Irv Novick’s original comic book page for The Star Jockey, 1962

Some examples of the artworks Lichtenstein reimagined from specific comic book pages include Whaam!. While the original motif was lifted from a comic book by Irv Novick, Lichtenstein made a number of changes to Novick’s design, such as removing mountains and additional fighter jets, and changing the colors so they shift from red to yellow, to heighten their dramatic impact. 

In the Car, Roy Lichtenstein, 1962 (detail)
In the Car, Roy Lichtenstein, 1962 (detail), Jack Kirby’s illustration for Girls Romances, 1960s

Meanwhile, in In the Car, taken from the comic book series Girls Romances, Lichtenstein removes the text, dramatically alters the color scheme, and changes the expression on the man’s face to one of greater menace.

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It is also worth noting the role scale had to play in the understanding of Lichtenstein’s art. By transforming what was once a tiny frame into a colossal work of art, the image becomes something new, to be read and understood in a different way. 

Some of His Work Is Very Close to the Original

Look Mickey by Roy Lichtenstein
Look Mickey by Roy Lichtenstein, 1961, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

As pointed out in a recent documentary titled WHAAM! BLAM! Roy Lichtenstein and the Art of Appropriation, 2022, directed by James L Hussey, many of Lichtenstein’s artworks were remarkably similar to the original comic book illustrations. This means some of the comic book artists whose ideas were riffed by Lichtenstein are understandably angered by the lack of recognition.

Comic book artist Dave Gibbons, who illustrated the graphic novel Watchmen, said in an interview with the BBC in 2013, “I’m not convinced that it is art. A lot of Lichtenstein’s stuff is so close to the original that it actually owes a huge debt to the work of the original artist.” Drawing a comparison with music, he notes, “…you can’t just whistle somebody else’s tune no matter how badly without crediting or getting payment to the original artist.”

He Changes the Image’s Purpose

Modern Art I by Roy Lichtenstein, 1996
Modern Art I by Roy Lichtenstein, 1996

One argument for Lichtenstein’s art relates to the way he shifted the image’s original function, thereby translating it into a new kind of object. Braford R Collins, professor of art history at the University of South Carolina, argues of Lichtenstein’s art, “It’s not plagiarism. It’s appropriation. With plagiarism, you’re stealing somebody’s work and using it for the same purpose they did. If Lichtenstein made comic books out of it that would be stealing. But appropriation means you’re taking something and reusing it for a very different purpose, taking something out of a comic book and making it into a painting.”

As his career progressed, Lichtenstein’s references to pop culture became increasingly fragmented, and often merged with elements of art historical imagery, from the work of Pablo Picasso to the art of Claude Monet, proving that his entire practice was built around the concept of appropriation.

In this context, we can see Lichtenstein’s art as part of a wider continuum of appropriation. Art history is littered with examples of other artists who also toyed with how changing the function of found imagery, motifs or objects could allow us to appreciate them as something entirely new, from, to Manet’s Olympia, 1863, which reworked Titian’s Venus of Urbino, 1534, to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917, which repurposed a urinal into a sculpture through the smallest intervention.

Lichtenstein Made Millions from the Ideas of Others

marcel duchamp fountain dada
Fountain by Marcel Duchamp, 1917, replica 1964, via Tate, London

There’s no denying that Lichtenstein made millions of dollars during his lifetime for the sale of his art. It is this fact in particular that has angered many of the comic book artists whose ideas he reimagined, particularly given that so many of them lived out their entire lives with modest means. Comic book artist Hy Eisman, who had one of his illustrations appropriated by Lichtenstein argued, “I worked like a dog on this stupid page and [Lichtenstein] has $20m to show for it. If it wasn’t so tragic it would be funny.”

His ‘Copycat’ Art Typifies the Postmodern Era

pop artist lichtenstein drowning painting
Drowning Girl by Roy Lichtenstein, 1963, reportedly worth $94.4 million (Christie’s auction 2015)

Lichtenstein is by no means the only artist who took imagery designed by others and refashioned in the name of art. In fact, his approach typifies the postmodern era, which began with the Pop Art of Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist and many others, leading on to Photorealism during the 1970s and the Pictures Generation of the 1970s and 1980s. Like it or not, the majority of images in the public eye are not shielded from reuse in a variety of creative ways, particularly during the digital age when so much visual material is at the tip of our fingers.

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