In the early 1961, Roy Lichtenstein was challenged by his young son to “paint as good” as the artists of the Mickey Mouse comics the lad was reading. Thus, a icon of the American pop art scene stumbled upon the format that would make him famous.
Two of his best-known works are the comic-inspired pieces, Whaam! and Drowning Girl, both produced in 1963. In these paintings, Lichtenstein utilizes a method of outlining figures in thick, black strokes and fills areas of primary color with Benday dots to produce different shades and hues, both practices reminiscent of the printing methods of comic books produced in the ’60s and ’70s.
Whaam! was itself an adaptation of an actual illustration from a 1962 war comic published by DC. The painting is a diptych composed of an Air Force aircraft firing a rocket at an enemy who explodes in a brilliant display of red and yellow. In comic book lettering style, a caption in the first panel reads, “I pressed the fire control…and ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky…” The illustration is set off with large, block letters spelling “Whaam!” as the rocket hits its target.
In Torpedo…Los!, the comic-themed panel depicts a close up of a submarine captain peering through a periscope. The scene is punctuated with bold swaths of primary yellow and blue. The painting drew a bid of over $5 million when sold at auction in 1989.
The choice of content of both Torpedo and Whaam! seems heavily influenced by Lichtenstein’s own military service which interrupted his art studies at the Ohio State University.
In the 1970’s and 80’s Lichtenstein began to broaden his focus, including continuing a series of “Artists Studios”. Look Mickey depicts a sparsely furnished studio with the Disney character, Donald Duck, in a painting on the studio wall. Much of the space is depicted in stark black and white, contrasting with the blue, yellow, and hints of red in the art on the wall. Donald Duck is fishing and his word balloon reads, “Look Mickey, I’ve hooked a big one!” A separate word balloon – unattached to any speaker – reads, “See that baldheaded guy over there? That’s “Curly” Grogan. He and his mob run half the rackets in this town!”
Other works in the “Studios” series incorporate the work of other artists as back ground material for Lichtenstein’s paintings. Lichtenstein also dabbled in surrealism and even constructed metal and plastic sculptures such as Lamp in St. Mary’s, Georgia and The Head, in Barcelona.