By Jonathon Keats
“Is He The Worst Artist In The U.S.?” Life Magazine asked in the headline of a January 1964 feature on Roy Lichtenstein, next to a picture of him surrounded by his iconic comic book paintings. Lichtenstein was already a favorite target of mainstream media, which regularly made a mockery of him in order to preemptively discredit artwork that seemed to make fun of them. Even writers sympathetic to Pop art gave him more acknowledgment as a satirist than as a ‘serious’ artist. In the September 1969 issue of Vogue, the critic David Sylvester dubbed him “the ironic Lichtenstein”, crediting him with the talent “to joke about what we mind most about.”
Lichtenstein revealed his serious intentions with his very first comic book paintings. These works from the early ’60s literally depicted the printed cartoons that were their sources. He treated Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck as abstract colors and shapes, deliberately ignoring the characters that those forms were intended to represent. By pointedly choosing to portray subjects that were two-dimensional in their own right, he was pursuing the path set a decade earlier when Jasper Johns first painted an American flag, ingeniously showing that the vaunted flatness of Abstract Expressionism could paradoxically be consistent with realism in certain circumstances. Johns’ flags proposed a reunion of antithetical ancient and modern traditions in painting. Lichtenstein sorted out the implications.