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Pop Art pioneer Roy Lichtenstein dead at 73

September 30, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ Roy Lichtenstein, a pioneer of the Pop Art movement best known for his oversized comic book-style images, died Monday. He was 73.

Lichtenstein had been hospitalized at New York University Medical Center for several weeks with an undisclosed illness and died of pneumonia, said Cassandra Lozano, his personal assistant.

``Roy’s style was known around the world. ... He took things that everyone thought they knew and made something original out of them,″ said Kirk Varnedoe, the curator of paintings and sculpture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

When President Clinton announced Lichtenstein’s death at a White House dinner for presidential arts and humanities award winners, gasps could be heard from the crowd. Clinton awarded Lichtenstein the arts medal two years ago.

Prolific and witty, Lichtenstein used his flair for composition to create paintings with a poster-like power. His signature touches were his bold black outlines and the use of the photoengraver’s Ben Day dots.

His work was inspired by commercial art and commercial art in turn reappropriated his images. Lichtenstein parodies became common over the years, turning up on everything from greeting cards to T-shirts.

``I take a cliche and try to organize its forms to make it monumental,″ he once said. ``The difference is often not great, but it is crucial.″

At their best, his works contained wry observation and sly humor as he appropriated images and reworked them with wit and intelligence.

Lichtenstein initially experimented with abstract expressionism but turned to Pop at age 38 with his landmark ``Look Mickey, I’ve Hooked a Big One!!″ (1961). He took a comic drawing from a bubble gum wrapper and blew it up into a full-scale painting, turning commercial art into an object of fine art.

He reproduced the Ben Day dots of comic strips by laying a metal screen over his canvas, spreading paint with a roller and rubbing it in with a toothbrush.

Some paintings, like 1963′s ``Drowning Girl,″ employed the ultimate comic strip convention, the cartoon balloon: ``I don’t care! I’d rather sink -- than call Brad for help!″

``Whaam,″ (1963), had the words ``I pressed the fire control ... and ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky...″ in a balloon as a fighter pilot destroyed another plane.

Not all critics agreed his work was art.

Brian O’Doherty, writing in The New York Times in 1963, declared Lichtenstein ``one of the worst artists in America″ who ``briskly went about making a sow’s ear out of a sow’s ear.″

The verdict later was generally kinder.

In 1986 Todd Brewster wrote in Life magazine that Lichtenstein was ``always the most thoughtful of the pop artists ... (and) had the most to say. Those cartoon blowups may have disturbed the critics, but collectors, tired of the solemnity of abstract expressionism, were ready for some comic relief. Why couldn’t the funny pages be fine art?″

Lichtenstein ``took something that was pulpy and base and made an art of very high sophistication out of it,″ Varnedoe said.

Frank Stella, a fellow Pop artist, said Lichtenstein was a leader in the 1960s movement, which culled materials and subjects from popular culture in a reaction against the seriousness of high art.

``They were powerful, dominant images,″ Stella said. ``They really set the tone for American painting in the post-war period. Roy really led the way.″

Born in New York City on Oct. 27, 1923, Lichtenstein was the son of a prosperous realtor. He became interested in art during high school and studied one summer under Reginald Marsh at the Art Students League.

He earned a bachelor’s degree at Ohio State University and then a master’s in painting _ the latter interrupted by World War II Army service.

He worked on his own art while teaching and doing other jobs. An interest in Americana led him to paint cowboys and Indians in modern art styles.

In 1960 he moved to Rutgers University’s Douglass College whose faculty included artists Claes Oldenburg, Allan Kaprow and Robert Watts.

It was at that time he introduced comic strip figures _ first Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. He also made images of a golf ball, a cat copied from a Kitty Litter container and a girl on a Poconos resort poster.

``It’s true that when I looked at what I was doing, it offended my own sense of taste. ... this was, without question, contrary to everything one had been taught about matters of style and substance, and so forth,″ he once said in an interview with critic John Gruen.

But he added, ``Once I did those paintings, I couldn’t work in any other way.″

While the mainstream critics were not interested, collectors were. Lichtenstein’s first one-man show of Pop paintings at the Leo Castelli gallery in 1962 sold out before it opened. His popularity grew from there.

Over the years he did paintings of mirrors, of brush strokes, of interiors, re-interpretations of works by Picasso, Mondrian, Leger, Monet and Cezanne. His later work quoted his own early pictures.

A major retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in 1993 when Lichtenstein was 70 drew general praise but also some reservations.

Time magazine critic Robert Hughes called him, ``the great academician of the pop movement″ but added, ``After a while, it isn’t very interesting to be shown that just about anything can be turned into a Lichtenstein, congealed in his cryogenic style.″

Lichtenstein split his time between a home in Southampton on Long Island and a former electrical factory in Greenwich Village that was converted into a studio.

In 1949 he married Isabel Wilson and they had two sons, David and Mitchell. They divorced in 1965 and three years later he married Dorothy Herzka, who ran an art gallery at the time.

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