LEONARD: 100 years after his birth, Pop Art icon is painted as a thief
TOM LEONARD: Whaam! Pow!… Fraud? Letch? 100 years after his birth, Roy Lichtenstein is painted as a shameless thief with a raging libido who chased girls half his age – while billionaires still pay $165M for his copycat art
Whaam! Crak! Pow! Wake up America – next month is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the man you are often told is one of your greatest ever artists.
Roy Lichtenstein, one of the founders of the revolutionary 1960s Pop Art movement has been hailed as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.
His large painted depictions of comic-strip panels complete with eye-catching word balloons are instantly recognizable around the world and now change hands for tens of millions of dollars.
In 2017, hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen reportedly paid $165 million for a Lichtenstein’s Masterpiece, making it one of the 10 most expensive paintings ever sold.
Nearly two decades after his death in 1997, ex-lovers have come forward to paint a picture of a complicated man – whose quiet, unassuming facade hid a raging libido, and who left a doomed marriage for an open one and chased much younger women along the way. ‘He wanted to make women cry,’ claimed an ex-girlfriend.
Regardless, the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation certainly thinks he’s someone to celebrate.
Months after the US Postal Service unveiled five new postage stamp designs celebrating the artist, the foundation has announced it is donating 186 of his works to five big US museums including New York’s Whitney which will hold a Lichtenstein retrospective in 2026.
‘Given his modesty, Roy might not have wanted to fuss over this anniversary, but I’m sure he would have been thrilled to know that in his hundredth year, his work looks as fresh, radical and relevant as ever, and is now being honored as a permanent achievement,’ gushed his widow Dorothy Lichtenstein, the president of the foundation’s board.
Whaam! Crak! Pow! Wake up America – next month is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the man you are often told is one of your greatest ever artists. (Above) Roy Lichtenstein’s painting Whaam! 1963 is exhibited at the Tate Modern in London in 2013
‘Given his modesty, Roy might not have wanted to fuss over this anniversary, but I’m sure he would have been thrilled to know that in his hundredth year, his work looks as fresh, radical and relevant as ever, and is now being honored as a permanent achievement,’ gushed his widow Dorothy Lichtenstein (above with artist in 1987), the president of the foundation’s board.
To borrow Winston Churchill’s famous put-down [of political rival Clement Attlee], some say the artist had a great deal to be modest about.
For according to a vociferous band of detractors, Lichtenstein was a shameless thief who didn’t just adapt comic book art – as is usually claimed – but simply copied it. Right down to the exact quotes in the word bubbles.
‘The irony is that he was just stealing other people’s artwork and enlarging it and claiming that it was his own,’ says retired art teacher David Barsalou. ‘He didn’t want people to know that he was just copying images out of comic books.’
And Barsalou should know what he’s talking about as he has spent years painstakingly matching up Lichtenstein’s paintings to its source in comic books.
An avid comic book collector, he told a shocking documentary last year called ‘Whaam! Bam! Roy Lichtenstein and the Art of Appropriation’ that, having examined more than 500,000 comics, he had so far been able to trace some 300 Lichtenstein cartoon works (around 95 percent of the total) to comic art he copied.
Not that Lichtenstein ever admitted as much, never crediting any of the comic book artists by name let alone paying them anything, and preferring the world to think his highbrow art was only inspired by lowbrow comic art.
Within two years of Lichtenstein’s startling 1961 breakthrough with an acclaimed exhibition in New York, comic book artist William Overgard had a letter published in Time magazine in which he lightheartedly but pointedly drew attention to how much Lichtenstein’s venerated ‘I Can See the Whole Room…and There’s Nobody in It!’ painting of a man looking through a keyhole resembled a cartoon Overgard had drawn for a comic.
They look pretty much identical right down to the words.
‘Very flattering…I think?’ Overgard commented wryly in his letter.
In 2017, hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen reportedly paid $165 million for a Lichtenstein’s Masterpiece (above), making it one of the 10 most expensive paintings ever sold.
Would he have been quite so philosophical had he known that in 2011, Lichtenstein’s version of his small comic book illustration would set a record for the artist when it sold for $43.2 million at Christie’s, New York.
Russ Heath, who created war comics for DC and provided the images of exploding fighter planes that were used in some of Lichtenstein’s most famous work, told last year’s documentary, ‘I just think it’s something you don’t do – steal other people’s work, no matter what kind of business it is.’
‘Invent your own thing and run with that ball. Don’t run with mine,’ he said.
Comic strip artist Hy Eisman, whose work was also used by Lichtenstein for a painting that sold for $20 million, also called it theft.
‘I worked like a dog on this stupid page and this guy has $20 million to show for it,’ he said. ‘If it wasn’t so tragic, it would be [funny].’
Some of these artists are now living out their twilight years in financially straitened circumstances.
Whatever the case, as the art world rushed to lionize Lichtenstein and intellectualize what some complained was empty, gimmicky work – Life magazine in 1964 asked: ‘Is this the worst artist in America?’ – there was little appetite among the experts to question his greatness.
They look pretty much identical right down to the words. ‘Very flattering…I think?’ Overgard commented wryly in his letter. (Above) William Overgard’s original Steve Roper cartoon panel
Would Overgard have been quite so philosophical had he known that in 2011, Lichtenstein’s version of his small comic book illustration would set a record for the artist when it sold for $43.2 million at Christie’s, New York. (Above) Lichtenstein’s work displayed at Christie’s in 2011
Like Andy Warhol, his great Pop Art rival, he was certainly radically different to the prevailing Abstract-Expressionism and in the 60s, it was originality that mattered.
The plagiarism hoo-ha has at least distracted attention from Lichtenstein’s colorful private life.
His first marriage ended in divorce in 1965 after wife Isabel became an alcoholic during the bitterly cold winters they endured in upstate New York.
But Letty Eisenhauer recalled meeting Lichtenstein before his separation was finalized when she was a graduate student and he was a rising art world star.
‘Roy would show up in New York for art events, and he would try to put the moves on me,’ she said in a 2013 interview as the Tate Modern prepared to show Lichtenstein’s work.
‘Once, when I rebuffed him, he said to me: ‘You’re really straight, aren’t you?’ And I said: ‘Yes, and you’re a married man!’
They ended up moving in together after the divorce was settled, but it didn’t last.
Upon his return from a trip to Paris, Lichtenstein blindsided her with news he’d met someone else.
He married second wife Dorothy in 1968 but in 1991 he began a three-year affair with a singer, Erica Wexler, when he was 68 and she was 23.
Wexler met him on a blind date set up by a mutual friend and said that, on learning his age, concluded she’d at least get a free meal out of it.
‘Roy didn’t want a woman. He liked them young and juicy,’ she said in a 2013 interview. ‘He knew he had pulling power. That, and money.’
She claimed that Lichtenstein had an open marriage with Dorothy. ‘He had his parallel thing with a lover or whatever and she had her thing. It worked for them. They had a lot of homes, which helps,’ she said.
Lichtenstein married second wife Dorothy in 1968 but in 1991 he began a three-year affair with a singer, Erica Wexler (above), when he was 68 and she was 23.
Wexler claimed that Lichtenstein had an open marriage with Dorothy (above in 2012). ‘He had his parallel thing with a lover or whatever and she had her thing. It worked for them. They had a lot of homes, which helps,’ she said.
Born in Manhattan in 1923, Lichtenstein served in Europe during World War Two and later studied Fine Arts at Ohio State University.
His attempts to establish himself back in New York as an abstract expressionist failed dismally – no big gallery was interested in his work – and he despondently looked for another direction.
There’s an apocryphal story that he found that new direction in cartoons when, in his late 30s, he was reading a Disney children’s book to one of his young sons (David and Mitchell) and the boy challenged him to paint as well as the illustrations in the book.
He took up the challenge and produced his 1961 painting ‘Look Mickey’ – based on a cartoon of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck out fishing.
The art world was never the same again.
When some of Lichtenstein’s early paintings of comic book panels – which he created using so-called Ben-Day dots to suggest they’d been photographically reproduced – were exhibited at an influential Manhattan gallery, they were seen by one of Warhol’s assistants. When she reported back that another artist had ‘got there first’ in doing his big idea of colorfully looting popular culture on canvas, he reportedly went white with shock.
When some of Lichtenstein’s early paintings of comic book panels – which he created using so-called Ben-Day dots to suggest they’d been photographically were reproduced – were exhibited at an influential Manhattan gallery, they were seen by one of Warhol’s assistants. (Above) ‘Ohhh…Alright… ‘ is a 1964 pop art painting
(Above) Lichtenstein’s ‘Nudes with Beach Ball’
(Above) Lichtenstein’s ‘In The Car’
Lichtenstein had largely stopped doing his huge comic-strip style paintings by 1965 but their popularity more than endured. Colorful and eye-catching, they look great on the walls of museums and the homes of billionaires, many from Russia, China and the Middle East, who started buying art and pushed up the prices of artists like Lichtenstein to eye-watering levels.
Money, specifically the huge disparity between how much Lichtenstein paintings go for and how little the comic book artists earned for slaving away at the ‘original’, has clearly been a major factor in stoking the furor over alleged plagiarism.
Another has been the tireless research of David Barsalou, which he has catalogued on his website, Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein. A Pop Art fan, Barsalou decided to track down the comic book source of all Lichtenstein’s images.
Although he expected to find no more than half a dozen Lichtensteins that were close to the original, his anger grew as he discovered it was far more.
‘It was hard to describe my feelings as I started to discover more and more over the years that his images were like just direct copies. Some of them were like almost exactly the same,’ he said. His biographers usually insist Lichtenstein always created his own drawings of comic book panels although it’s frequently claimed he didn’t even do that, instead using a projector to blow them up to the size he wanted and then tracing over it.
Acclaimed graphic novelist Dave Gibbons, co-creator of Watchmen, has gone so far as to call Lichtenstein ‘dishonest’ over his uncredited mass appropriation. Batman artist Rian Hughes agrees, saying the phrase he uses to describe Lichtenstein’s behavior is ‘putting a turd on a pedestal…this low art is being transformed by some magical process that the artist has into high art.’ He went on: ‘What that magical process is I don’t actually understand. It seems to be repainting something badly but much larger and hanging it on a wall in a cathedral of high culture.’
Lichtenstein’s (above at 73 years old) defenders in the clubby art establishment have a lot invested – not least their credibility – in silencing claims he was a mere copyist. They like to say that he ‘appropriated’ comic book art rather than copied it, although his critics say that’s just a polite word to stealing.
He added that unlike the music business where ‘sampling’ other people’s songs is a serious issue, gallery bosses are ‘happy to be woefully ignorant about the source material’ of Lichtenstein’s work.
Lichtenstein’s defenders in the clubby art establishment have a lot invested – not least their credibility – in silencing claims he was a mere copyist. They like to say that he ‘appropriated’ comic book art rather than copied it, although his critics say that’s just a polite word to stealing.
If the ‘appropriation’ defense fails, others in the Lichtenstein camp often resort to drowning out the naysayers with lofty artspeak.
Jack Cowart, executive director of the Lichtenstein Foundation, for instance said this in 2008 in the great man’s defense: ‘Roy’s work was a wonderment of the graphic formulae and the codification of sentiment that had been worked out by others.’
Lawyers have expressed shock that Lichtenstein was never sued for copyright infringement, as they say he should have been. The reason nobody ever did sue, say insiders, is because the copyright to the comic art was actually held by the publishers not the artists and the former didn’t consider it financially worth their trouble. It is now a moot point as the statute of limitations for copyright infringement is three years.
Lichtenstein’s widow, Dorothy claims he was always slightly astonished by his success.
It’s clear that she wasn’t the only one.
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