The Art Angle Podcast: How Roy Lichtenstein Became a Super-Villain to Comic Book Artists

This week, a new documentary considers if Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein appropriated or stole imagery from comic book artists.

Roy Lichtenstein's Crying Girl at Christie's auction house. Photo by Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images.
Roy Lichtenstein's Crying Girl at Christie's auction house. Photo by Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images.

Welcome to the Art Angle, a podcast from Artnet News that delves into the places where the art w orld meets the real world, bringing each week’s biggest story down to earth. Join us every week for an in-depth look at what matters most in museums, the art market, and much more, with input from our own writers and editors, as well as artists, curators, and other top experts in the field.

When you hear the name Roy Lichtenstein, an artistic style immediately comes to mind. In the early 1960s, Lichtenstein’s use of comic books as an inspiration for his brightly-colored Pop Art painting was groundbreaking, and even shocking.

Today, he is one of the most instantly-recognizable and widely known of all painters, and yet a quarter of a century after his death, the subject of Roy Lichtenstein’s source material has unexpectedly become a hot topic once again.

In the 1960s, Lichtenstein’s paintings sold for thousands of dollars; in 1995, just a few years before he died, his painting Nurse sold at auction for $1.7 million, and then in 2015 the same painting hit the auction block once again, this time selling for a staggering $95 million, making it one of the most expensive paintings in the world.

While marketing that sale, Christie’s auction house said that the imagery in Nurse was drawn from what it called a “comic romance novel of the early 1960s.” What the auction house did not mention was the actual person who drew the original panel Lichtenstein used as source material for that painting was the golden age comic Arthur Peddy, and in the world of comic art, this lack of respect for Lichtenstein’s sources is a big, big deal.

In museums, the artist’s status may be unquestionable, but crossover into the parallel universe of comic art and Lichtenstein’s status is viewed as a symbol of the disrespect to comics as an art form, and the man himself is seen as a thief who copied hard-working artists without even bothering to credit them by name.

Instead of healing over time, this particular rift seems to have only become more inflamed as Lichtenstein’s stock has soared. Some of the most famous voices in comics from Dave Gibbons, the artist behind the groundbreaking graphic novel Watchmen to Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of Maus, to Neil Gaiman, writer of the legendary comic series The Sandman have all been outspoken, blasting museums for failing to credit the unique voices of the comic book artists who inspired Roy Lichtenstein.

The story of the many meanings of Roy Lichtenstein is a story of the shifting relations between museum art and comic culture, of money, morality, and the law; and of how meaning in art is always shifting. At least, that’s one takeaway from the new streaming documentary WHAAM! BLAM! Roy Lichtenstein and the Art of Appropriation. This week, national art critic Ben Davis spoke to the film’s director James L. Hussey to discuss the issues it raised.

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