To make a brushstroke look like a brushstroke

by David Greenhalgh, Curatorial Assistant, Kenneth Tyler Collection.


Roy Lichtenstein’s visual vocabulary of black outlines, block colour and Benday dots is well known. It was a style derived from commercial printing techniques and the distinct look of American comic books. But before his iconic Pop Art, Lichtenstein painted in the style of the Abstract Expressionists. From 1957 to 1960, he abandoned figuration to create large, colourful and patterned work, often using his shirt sleeve to push paint across canvas in a broad gestural stroke. Working in Ohio at the time, Lichtenstein recalled that when he adopted this style:

It might have been the overpowering influence of Abstract Expressionism… I didn’t think I was painting a kind of painting. I was just painting[1].

The expressive fingerprint and emotive energetic sweep of these marks were the antithesis of what he would soon become famous for: In 1961, beckoned by his son to paint a panel from a comic strip, Lichtenstein stumbled upon a cool, kitsch and commercial style that would propel him to Pop Art fame.

There was, however, a period of symbiosis that preceded this breakthrough, where both cartoon figures and abstract, expressive marks occupied the same sheet. Sketches from 1958 of characters such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck rendered in expressive India Ink on paper show that Lichtenstein had begun to intuit the significance of commercial and pop culture visuals. Appropriation of cheap print material had begun to hold the same allure for Lichtenstein as the ‘high art’ of Abstract Expressionism, dissolving the boundaries of what was considered tasteful at the time.

Roy Lichtenstein in his Southampton studio, with the paintings ‘Woman with lollipop’, ‘Nude on beach’ and ‘La la la’ along with the sculpture ‘Cup and saucer I’, Southampton, New York, 1977. Photograph by Kenneth Tyler.

Lichtenstein often mused that his affinity with commercial and comic images could have stemmed from his service in World War Two, where, as an orderly to a Major General, he would be given the task of copying and enlarging Bill Maudlin cartoons from the army newspaper, Stars and Stripes, to decorate the officer’s quarters[2]. Or that, living in Ohio after the war, his exposure to the exciting wave of post-War art from New York was largely through magazine reproductions. Lichtenstein reflected in a lecture in 1964 that there seemed ‘to have been some critical point demanding expression which brought [the first Pop artists] to depart from whatever directions [they] were pursuing and to move toward some comment involving the commercial aspect of our environment’[3]. The critical point may have been, Lichtenstein speculated, that commercial art glorified ‘things’, usually products, whereas Abstract Expressionism focused on surface, or as he put it:

Commercial art runs contrary to a major art current in the sense that it concentrates on thing rather than environment. On figure rather than ground[4]

Roy Lichtenstein, Kitchen Range, 1961-62. Oil on canvas. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. Accession no.: 1979.68

Lichtenstein abandoned his Abstract Expressionist style in 1961, and instead began producing paintings such as Kitchen Range, adapted from a black and white advertisement for Signature brand ovens. The depiction was cool, restrained and almost mechanical. He began to refer to this newfound style as ‘a kind of straight-jacket’[5], a set of rules that governed how he made work, which standardised his chosen subjects, and reflected the increasingly commercial Post-War United States.

Extending this notion, Lichtenstein began to imitate works of fine art. The National Gallery of Australia’s Kenneth Tyler Collection includes works from his 1969 series Haystacks, a wry reimagining of the subtle and beautiful colours of Claude Monet’s Haystack paintings from 1890 as flat, two-tone print masterpieces.

Claude Monet, Meules, milieu du jour [Haystacks, midday], 1890. Oil on canvas. Acc: 79.16
Roy Lichtenstein, Haystack #3, 1969. Colour lithograph. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.
Acc: 1973.905.3 From the Kenneth Tyler Collection

Lichtenstein’s ‘straight jacket’ was the limitation of half-tone printing, primarily the Benday dot, which economically captures what should be subtle gradations in contrast and colour. Lichtenstein relished exploring the limits of what this visual vocabulary could achieve. He revelled in capturing ephemeral phenomena such as the sun setting over water or light from a lamp in motion lines and hatching, a modern shorthand for energy and movement.

Roy Lichtenstein, Lamp, 1981. Woodcut print. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. Acc: 1983.3627 From the Kenneth Tyler Collection
Roy Lichtenstein, De nouveau au-dessus de Denver [Above Denver once again], 1992. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. Acc: 95.987.1.6

But of these representational challenges, Lichtenstein particularly loved depicting paint itself. For example, Brushstrokes, a colour screen-print from 1967, depicts a cartoon gestural stroke, the type of painterly mark that was the authentic and emotive sign of Abstract Expressionism. Suspended over a ground of blue half-tone dots, the slashed and dripped brushstrokes parody the serious pursuits of the previous generation of American artists. Lichtenstein may have also been poking fun at his own Abstract Expressionist paintings of the previous decade, as he mused that his drips would have to ‘look like drops of water drawn by a commercial artist’[6].

Roy Lichtenstein, Brushstroke, 1967. Colour screenprint. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.
Acc: 1983.1492

Later, in 1982, Lichtenstein loosened his straight jacket by reintroducing into his work the ‘real’ brushstroke that he had abandoned decades earlier. In Abstract Expressionism, the gestural brushstroke was made automatically and was an expression of the sub-conscious, but in Lichtenstein’s work these sat side by side with cartoon brushstrokes, blurring notions of authenticity and the division of high and low art. Lichtenstein made clear in a 1986 interview that ‘everything is a brushstroke… That’s the idea. It gives me a certain freedom’[7].

Roy Lichtenstein, Reflections on brushstrokes. 1992. Lithograph, screenprint, woodcut, metalised PVC, plastic film collage and embossing. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. Acc: 2002.1.72. From the Kenneth Tyler Collection

Master printmaker Kenneth Tyler, who worked with Lichtenstein throughout his career, recalled that Lichtenstein always ‘questioned what a mark was. He did that a lot. He did that at conversations at dinner, he did that in conversations in the studio.’[8] This questioning was taken to a new level with the 1990 series produced at Tyler Graphics, Reflections on, where each print is contained within a printed ‘frame’ and is obscured by a cartoonish emulation of a reflection on glass. Lichtenstein came to this idea after he tried photographing an artwork in Florida that had ‘this terrific glare on it, through the window… Then I thought it’s a good idea for paintings—it’s an excuse to do almost anything’[9].

The work Reflections on brushstrokes is an examination of the fetishized Abstract Expressionist masterpiece. By presenting this work as framed and behind glass, Lichtenstein has depicted the artwork as a desirable commodity, albeit one obscured by a cartoon glare. Footage in the Kenneth Tyler Collection of Lichtenstein at work on this project reveals that his gestural brushstrokes are not what they seem. These are not quick, frenzied marks, but instead are a composite, as Lichtenstein remarks on camera that

It takes three lithographic plates to make the brushstroke look like a brushstroke[10].

This alignment and registration of three different printing plates with three different gestural marks to create one final Abstract Expressionist mark, demonstrate that Lichtenstein sought an industrial precision, even when it came to the idea of the Abstract Expressionist masterpiece. Kenneth Tyler recalled that ‘instead of using a brush he started using rags saturated with pigment… the rag would produce beautiful subtle greys and solid blacks’[11], and that while they were proofing this work, he would beckon the printmakers to ‘make it look more mechanical, make it look more industrial’[12].

This approach restates Lichtenstein’s philosophy that commercialism and its veneration of the ‘thing’, or product, had eclipsed the Abstract Expressionist search for the unconscious and therefore authentic and unique expressive form. Reflections on brushstrokes puts these marks under glass, relegating this style (which was once a part of his own practice) to a museum piece, reproduced in an edition of 68 prints.

Reflections on brushstroke was printed by Kevin Falco, Lee Funderberg, Paul Stillpass, Michael Mueller, John Hutcheson and Rodney Konopaki. Supervised by Master printer Kenneth Tyler. Staff members are more than welcome to share their own reflections on this edition in the comments below – we are currently assisting researchers who are looking to find out which brand of silver foil was used on these works for conservation purposes!


[1] Lichtenstein interviewed by Diane Waldman in Waldman, D. (1971). Roy Lichtenstein. Thames and Hudson. p. 25

[2] Oral history interview with Roy Lichtenstein, 1963 November 15-1964 January 15. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. p. 116.

[3] Lichtenstein, R. (1964). Lecture to the college art association. In Harrison, C. & Wood, P. (eds.). (2003). Art in Theory 1900-2000. Blackwell publishing. p. 750

[4] Ibid.p. 750

[5] Kimmelman, M. (1997, September 30). Roy Lichtenstein, Pop Master, dies at 73. New York Times. para. 30.

[6] Oral history interview with Roy Lichtenstein, 1963 November 15-1964 January 15. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. p. 144.

[7] Bernard, A. & Thompson, M. (1986, 1 January). Roy Lichtenstein. BOMB Magazine #14. para. 84

[8] Tyler, K. (2013, 20 July). Reflections on Roy the happy art maker 1969-1994 [Lecture transcript]. Kenneth Tyler Collection, National Gallery of Australia.

[9] Lichtenstein, R. (1992). Interview by S. Schniedman [?]. [Tape Recording]. Kenneth Tyler Collection archives. National Gallery of Australia.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Tyler, K. (2013, 20 July). Reflections on Roy the happy art maker 1969-1994 [Lecture transcript]. Kenneth Tyler Collection, National Gallery of Australia.

[12] Ibid.

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