Before Lichtenstein Popped

Roy Lichtenstein was a shy, quiet man, one of the first Pop artists of the mid-twentieth century. His pioneering paintings made him a lightening rod for harsh criticism of his work and of the Pop art movement itself.

Born in New York in 1923, Lichtenstein studied painting at the Parsons School of Design when he was a teenager and went on to study at the Art Students League and then Ohio State University. After a stint in the army he completed his BFA at Ohio State and stayed at the University to teach and complete his graduate studies.

Roy and Isabel Lichtenstein, ca. 1950, Photograph by Stanley Twardowicz

It was while he was in Cleveland that he met his first wife, Isabel Wilson, who volunteered at the Ten-Thirty gallery, where his early work was exhibited.

A recent PBS documentary, titled Isabel & Roy, focuses on the artist’s life in Cleveland, before he became a Pop icon.

Isabel and Lichtenstein married in 1949. She was raised on a farm, left home to attend college, but only completed one year because of her limited funds.

Isabel was lively and flamboyant, and established herself as an interior decorator. Her style was mid-century modern and she became a popular decorator with many of Cleveland’s elite.

At the time Isabel started her business, Lichtenstein painted at night and worked as a department store window dresser, a teacher at the Cooper School of Art and an engineering draftsman at Republic Steel. He sometimes helped Isabel, by hanging curtains for her clients. In 1952, Lichtenstein had a show in Cleveland, which garnered a scathing critical review, although many local artists praised his work.

Roy Lichtenstein
Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1951

He offered to sell his paintings to some of Isabel’s  clients, but they weren’t buying them, although he did custom make and sell some mosaic coffee tables for them.

Roy Lichtenstein with his sons David and Mitchell in Cleveland, ca 1956. Photograph: Carol Salus

Isabel became a great success and, after their sons were born, she was the primary breadwinner, which allowed Lichtenstein to spend time with the children and to paint.

In 1957, the family moved to New York, a move that Lichtenstein believed would enhance his career. The moved did that for him, but not for Isabel. She had problems with alcohol before their move, but they were exacerbated in New York. The couple divorced in 1965. Lichtenstein maintained an active role in her life and in the lives of their sons.

Roy Lichtenstein
Reflections off Crash, 1990
Image: 53 1/6 x 69 inches
Sheet: 59 1/8 x 75 inches
Signed, numbered, dated: 56/68 R. Lichtenstein ’90
For sale at Surovek Gallery

By 1963, Lichtenstein had become well-known in the art world.

During the last years of her life, Isabel’s drinking increased and her health declined. Lichtenstein helped her through difficult times, but she died in 1980, at age 58.

Their oldest son, David, graduated from Columbia University with a BS in Electrical Engineering, and worked as a recording engineer and musician. Mitchell graduated from Bennington College and the Yale School of Drama, and has written screenplays and directed and acted in film, television and theater. Both David and Mitchell are members of the Board of Directors of the Lichtenstein Foundation.

Roy Lichtenstein
Masterpiece, 1962 In 2017

In 2017, Lichtenstein’s painting Masterpiece, 1962 sold for $165 million. Like many of his other paintings, the irony of the woman’s remark in the speech bubble is humorous and, it turned out, monumental.

Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) "The River from the Landscape Series", 1985

Roy Lichtenstein
The River from the Landscape Series”, 1985
Woodcut, lithograph and screenprint Image: 37 1/4 x 52 1/2 inches
Sheet: 40 1/4 x 55 5/8 inches
Edition: #51/60
Signed, numbered, dated lower right: 51/60 R Lichtenstein ’85
For sale at Surovek Gallery

Roy Lichtenstein had a long and successful career as well as personal life. He married Dorothy Herzka in 1968, who remained a supportive partner until the artist’s death in 1987 and has been President of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation since its inception.

Please contact us if you would like more information about the works of Roy Lichtenstein available at Surovek Gallery.

Steven Litt. Excellent ideastream documentary explores Roy Lichtenstein’s pivotal early years in Cleveland. May 23, 2021.
2022-02-04T15:56:11-05:00 February 1st, 2022|

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