Roy Lichtenstein’s Whaam! artworks (both the offset lithograph and the ten-times-larger painting of the same title in the Tate) come from the startling short period which launched the artist out of obscurity into Pop Art stardom. It was a moment which might never have occurred.
Up till this point, 20 years into his painting career, Lichtenstein (1923-1997) had been making what he described as “very muddy” abstract expressionist works which were poorly received, even though they were shown in New York. It was a trajectory that was taking his career nowhere. The muddy paintings matched his situation. He was isolated, almost in a kind of exile occupying a teaching post in the town of Oswego near the Canadian border of New York State. This period became the professional and personal low point for the artist. He had to get out and get to New York; and he finally did, by securing a teaching job at Rutgers University in New Jersey in 1960.
There Lichtenstein found himself working alongside the likes of Alan Kaprow and George Segal, and it was their interest and support that provided the catalyst he needed to switch from abstract expressionism to the radically new interest in cartoon paintings that he had stumbled upon. In a very short space of time, and with his first Pop Art show at Leo Castelli Gallery in February 1962, he was propelled into celebrity status. Whaam! which was based on an image from an All-American Men of War comic book from 1962 came out of the meteoric success of the Castelli show.
Interviewed after Lichtenstein’s death, his widow Dorothy, recalled that “Roy had a feeling that if he’d still had a job teaching out in the boondocks, he might have done his first Pop work, but not carried on. He felt there was something that comes from response and encouragement that fuels you to go further than you might in a vacuum.”
The irony was that Lichtenstein wasn’t a fan of popular culture at all. His widow said he described himself as high-brow. So what was he doing playing around with comic books?! Lichtenstein himself says he was casting about for a despicable subject matter in an avant-garde reaction against an art world that seemed to accept everything. “It was hard to get a painting despicable enough so that no one would hang it – everybody was hanging everything. It was almost acceptable to hang a dripping paint rag. The one thing that everyone hated was commercial art; apparently they didn’t hate that enough either.”
Roy Lichtenstein, Whaam! offset lithograph, circa 1963 / printed by the Tate Gallery, London 1986, 525 x 735mm (each panel).
Previously published in Important Paintings & Contemporary Art, 26 April 2012, Art+Object the 21st Century Auction House, Auckland, pp43-35.