In the 1950s, Lichtenstein struggled with an abstract expressionist style to find his own identity as a painter. Towards the end of that decade, he started to experiment with cartoon imagery, immediately setting up a dichotomy between artistic form and popular commercial content. By 1961 he had begun to incorporate into his paintings imagery from popular culture, such as comic books and advertisements clipped from newspapers and telephone books.
Look Mickey 1961 was a breakthrough for the 37-year-old Lichtenstein and set the course of his career. Based on an illustration from Donald Duck Lost and Found 1960, a Little Golden Book owned by Lichtenstein’s sons, it is considered his first pop painting (though it was not exhibited publicly until 1982). He made his rendering look like the cheapest of funnies, right down to its mimicry of three-colour printing, poor registration (the areas of colour do not quite fit together) and half-tone dots. Faint pencil lines show Lichtenstein adjusting pose and composition. Never in his life a straight copier, he sought to bring an aesthetic and formal order to his sources.
Other early works feature deadpan renditions of visual ads. They depict objects manipulated by disembodied female hands, such as Sponge1962 or Spray 1962, suggesting the portrayal of women as an extension of the household appliance inAmerica’s consumer culture.
Alongside Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and other American pop artists, Lichtenstein’s work explored the potent collision of commercial and fine art. What the critic Roland Barthes wrote of pop art in general applies to Lichtenstein in particular: ‘There are two voices, as in a fugue. One says: “This is not Art”; the other says, at the same time, “I am Art.”’