PRINT October 1963

An Interview with Roy Lichtenstein

ROY LICHTENSTEIN, BORN 1923 New York City, lives in New Jersey. Studied under Reginald Marsh (1939) at the Art Students League. Ohio State 1940–1943. Served in the armed forces 1943–1946 (Europe). Re­turned to Ohio State 1946 (B.F.A.) and taught there until 1951 (M.F.A. 1949). To Cleveland 1951–1957 paint­ing and making a living at various jobs. 1957–1960 instructor at N.Y. State College of Oswega. Currently teaches at Rutgers University.

Q. How did you paint prior to your current style?

A. Mostly reinterpretations of those artists con­cerned with the opening of the West, such as Reming­ton, with a subject matter of cowboys, Indians, treaty signings, a sort of Western official art in a style broadly influenced by modern European painting. From 1957 onwards my work became non-figurative and abstract expressionist. In the latter part of this body of work I used loosely handled cartoon images. In the summer of 1961 I made a complete break into my current work.

Q. What triggered this jump?

A. I am not sure what particularly influenced the change, especially as I have always had this interest in a purely American mythological subject matter.

Q. Then what gave you the idea of using an imper­sonal industrial technique?

A. Using a cartoon subject matter in my later paint­ings, some of which I was getting from bubble gum wrappers, eventually led to simulating the same tech­nique as the originals. The early ones were of ani­mated cartoons, Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse and Pop­eye, but then I shifted into the style of cartoon books with a more serious content such as “Armed Forces at War” and “Teen Romance.”

Q. Did you find any difficulty in handling the sub­ject matter in an impersonal way?

A. It was very difficult not to show everything I knew about a whole tradition. It was difficult not to be seduced by the nuances of “good painting.” The important thing, however, is not the technique, but the unity of vision within the painter himself. Then you don’t have to worry if everything you “know” will be in the painting.

Q. What was the real crisis that precipitated your clean break with the past?

A. Desperation. There were no spaces left between Milton Resnick and Mike Goldberg.

Q. Did the work of Johns or Rauschenberg provide you with any insights at that time?

A. Although I recognize their great influence now, I wasn’t as aware at that time. I was more aware of the Happenings of Oldenberg, Dine, Whitman and Kaprow. I knew Kaprow well; we were colleagues at Rutgers. I didn’t see many Happenings, but they seemed con­cerned with the American industrial scene. They also brought up in my mind the whole question of the ob­ject and merchandising.

Q. In your reply you seem to imply that the Happen­ings were more important to you than Johns or Rauschenberg. Why?

A. Although the Happenings were undoubtedly in­fluenced by Johns and Rauschenberg, an Oldenberg “Fried Egg” is much more glamorized merchandise and relates to my ideas more than Johns’ beer cans. I want my images to be as critical, as threatening and as insistent as possible.

Q. About what?

A. As visual objects, as paintings––not as critical commentaries about the world. Of course this is all in retrospect. At the beginning I wasn’t sure exactly what I was doing, but I was very excited about, and interested in, the highly emotional content yet detached impersonal handling of love, hate, war, etc., in these cartoon images.

Q. One of the main attacks on your work is that you don’t significantly transform the material you use.

A. The closer my work is to the original the more threatening and critical the content. However my work is entirely transformed, in that my purpose and per­ception is entirely different. I think my paintings are critically transformed but it would be difficult to prove it by any rational line of argument.