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Lifestyle: Whaam! Lichtenstein and the artistic process

by Sanza Bulaya
12 February, 2013
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About the author

Writer and Founder of the Gingko Project (, a form of media that provides a space for the commentary and circulation of art and culture. Sanza is also passionate about boxing and lifestyle. He lives in Taiwan to be in touch with the emerging Asia.

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February 21st sees the opening of the first major Lichtenstein retrospective in over twenty years, co-organised by the Tate Modern and the Art Institute of Chicago, bringing together 125 of the artist’s most iconic works. Sanza Bulaya, founder of the Ginkgo Project, considers the artist’s firsthand experience of war-ravaged Europe and the ensuing processes of artistic development

Drowning Girl Lichtenstein

The twentieth century was traumatised by wars: wars for the acquisition of colonies, territories or resources, and wars of ideologies. Methods and warfare techniques evolved: from fighting lines of trenches supported by artillery, machine guns and infantry assault, to the use of nuclear power and missiles; modern concepts of covert and special operations. In other words, what has been at stake is all about methods, techniques and

How can we optimise “to enrich a way of doing? How did the warfare move from mostly static war during WWI when mobility was minimal, to WWII style when mobility and communication “were pivotal dimensions of war?

Somehow, these critical periods of wars are fascinating moments for which we can acknowledge forces behind changes and processes. This is specifically this war context and this focus on “that are worth highlighting behind the realisation of Lichtenstein’s artistic development. In the light of this context, the artistic path of Lichtenstein, who was born on October 27th, 1923 in New York, is a great observation stage of changes representing also some watershed moments in the landscape of Art & Culture.

A war context

In a context of extreme violence in Europe, Lichtenstein joined the US Army at Fort Dix in New Jersey to complete his military service in 1943. The old Europe was plunged into the chaos of war, however, it is from this environment that he learned to embrace different influences.


In January 1945, Lichtenstein’s unit arrived in France and his main tasks as a soldier consisted of maintaining roads and bridges. In the shadow of WWII, Lichtenstein remained committed to his artistic passion, by being exposed to European styles and influences.

In May 1945, after the battle at Leipzig (Germany), Lichtenstein received the battle star ribbon as a member of the 1st Army even though he did not physically participate in combat. However, while the 1st Army headed back to the United States, his unit was transferred to the 9th Army and remained in Europe. So, he had the chance to stay in Paris, to visit the Louvre and to commence his great admiration of Picasso, Roualt and Matisse. Thanks to this ‘combat’ tour, he deployed a wealth of fascinating data and information on paintings and painting techniques and “processes”.

The end of the year 1945 is a thought-provoking time, as Lichtenstein empowered his vision of art and creation by taking history and French language classes at the Cité Universitaire in Paris. In addition, he was actively feeding himself with cultural and artistic influences: visiting the cathedral at Chartre among other art trips the school arranged outside the city, studying with Léger who was one of the few modern masters teaching in Paris at the time… Unexpectedly, in December, Lichtenstein returned to the United States to take care of his ill father.


Lichtenstein’s father died on January 11 1946. Then, he received a honourable discharge from the US Army. When we look beneath the surface of his ‘combat tour’ in Europe, he was clearly emerging as a visionary would-be artist, touched by the war context. That experience helped him to build-up his artistic statement about the “process” in the creation of art.

The Process Power

Primarily, music – and especially jazz – was Lichtenstein’s source of influence. Then, Lichtenstein developed a strong interest in drawing, science and design. This was his WWII antebellum period of time.

The critical moment was the meeting with his mentor, a great influencer to his artwork: Hoyt L. Sherman. The Fine Arts Ohio State University professor and the artist Sherman gave birth to Lichtenstein’s “process” integration and artistic revolutions. The tipping point was magnified by the drawing course called Design 423, where Sherman employed his own flash lab stacking boxes in a darkened room and asking his students to draw the afterimage using big block of charcoal or crayon on paper. From that moment, Lichtenstein started to produce pastels, oils paintings and drawings and began to show his work in some art galleries. He combined his extensive artistic culture knowledge with the processing art or the art of processing.

Lichtenstein brought his paintings to galleries in New York; the circumstances and his talent afforded him a solo exhibition in Manhattan. The show included paintings rendered in muted pinks, blues, and mauves, and assemblages made from wood, metal pieces and objects such as screws and drill buffers. Finally, he was consciously undertaking “over techniques, in the same way that passion for art and culture had overtaken war and chaos during his soldier life.


The 60’s

As the 60s progressed, Lichtestein’s drive was to take the changes and progress as great markers of new artistic horizons. Obviously, this was a vantage point for creative power defined with genuine concepts of ways of thinking and doing.

During the summer of 1962, Lichtenstein painted Look Mickey,” based on an image he found in one of his children’s Little Golden Book series 1. It was his first painting without any expressionism. By seeking an industrial texture for his work, he seized on the graphic concept of using Benday, or half-tone dots and flat printed areas. In “Look Mickey” he created the half-tone effect with a plastic-bristle dog-grooming brush dipped in oil paint and pressed onto the canvas; a unique outcome.

Roy Lichtenstein

From 1961 through to 1965, he drew his first pop paintings based on anime and inspired by TV commercials. As a visionary he was immediately inspired by societal changes in post-war America. Indeed, in this newborn consumerist society, one of the most symptomatic changes was the commercialization of household goods such as television: the main medium for moulding public opinion. In other words, a fundamental marketing “process” that a growing movement managed to conceptualize into art production.

Lichtenstein was part of this movement by using common objects as models, or by using the same marketing codes in his artistic productions as a reflection of a popular art. Lichtenstein used the media, specifically some TV commercials, as a support of art creation to address his artistic statement to the mass.

His most famous artwork is “Whaam!” inspired by the DC Comics – All-American Men of War. Why use comics to set a cultural dialogue with the post-modern American society? Certainly because this is the genesis of the mass-culture movement also known as Pop Art in the 60’s, led by Lichtenstein and some others great influencers: Andy Warhol, Robert Raushenberg or Jasper Johns.

The 70s


In the early 70s, he started a series of cubic style paintings. Actually, using a new “process” means renewal leading to his artistic revival. At the end of the 70s, sculpture became another dimension of his talent: in 1978, he shaped iron and plastic masterpieces such as ‘Lamp’ or Barcelona Head for the 1992 Olympic games. Unsurprisingly, his artistic continuity lay in the disruptions of the “processes” he loved to create.

Roy Fox Lichtenstein was actively creating and producing until his death on September 29th, 1997 in New York.

‘Lichtenstein: A Retrospective’ is on show at the Tate Modern from February 21 – May 27 2013


Sanza Bulaya | Website

Writer and Founder of the Gingko Project (, a form of media that provides a space for the commentary and circulation of art and culture. Sanza is also passionate about boxing and lifestyle. He lives in Taiwan to be in touch with the emerging Asia.

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