Roy Lichtenstein, ‘Whaam!’ 1963
Roy Lichtenstein
Whaam! 1963
© Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

Soon after New York dealer Leo Castelli proposed to represent Lichtenstein in 1961, the artist turned to two subjects that would make him famous: war and romance. These iconic pop paintings became an overnight success, yet they also provoked some virulent reactions in the cultural world. In 1964 Life magazine facetiously queried ‘Is he the worst artist in the US?’ – a question that riffed on a headline 15 years earlier in a 1949 Life magazine feature on Jackson Pollock which asked laconically: ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’.

Based on comic books such as All-American Men of War and Girls’ Romances, the war and romance paintings explored melodramatic stories and clichéd gender roles as disseminated through American mass media, including film. Such choices reveal Lichtenstein’s interest in the ‘pregnant moment’ – the crux from which one can imagine the whole story.

Dramatic close-ups of female faces such as Drowning Girl 1963 or Hopeless 1963 feature women in states of distress or reluctant acquiescence. The war paintings are dominated by violent action and scenes of discharging weapons. In Bratatat! 1962 a male fighter stares vehemently at his target; in other paintings, the explosions stand alone.

Whaam! 1963 reveals how Lichtenstein carefully reworked his source image by cropping, eliminating detail, deleting or editing speech bubbles and making the rocket trail horizontal rather than diagonal, thereby sharpening the drama and giving more weight to a single enemy. The result is not just the story of a dogfight, but a compositional tightrope act. ‘I was interested in using highly charged material [in] a very removed, technical, almost engineering drawing style’, Lichtenstein said.