Roy Lichtenstein's serious comic-inspired canvas Whaam! disrupted the art world in the mid-1960s, delivering an enigmatic salvo at both the conventions of artistic expression and the post-war representation of conflict. By reworking a comic book image of an American jet destroying an enemy plane, Lichtenstein blows up audience expectations.
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The monumental work measures 136 by 160 inches and has been seen as, variously, an anti-war statement, absurdist joke and biographical musing. The original cartoon composition, from the DC Comics monthly All-American Men of War, has been reimagined using Lichtenstein’s trademark Ben-Day dots – a 19th-century printing process which uses coloured points spaced and overlapped to create optical effects.
Rendered in two panels of equal size, the painting was first exhibited by the great Pop art promoter Leo Castelli in 1963 and quickly snapped up by the Tate. It can now be seen on permanent display at Tate Modern in London.
In 2013, Tate staged a major retrospective dedicated to Lichtenstein, with Whaam! as a centrepiece. At the exhibition’s opening, the artist’s widow, Dorothy Lichtenstein stunned audiences by announcing that her late husband “was not a fan of comics and cartoons.” Rather, she noted, “it seemed about as far away from the artistic image as you can get. And to transform that into a formal painting appealed to him.”
Reviewing the show, one critic observed that viewers are forever charmed by "explosions blossoming in mid-air, jilted girls crying a river, the fighter pilot forever locked on his target – all preserved in Lichtenstein's cryogenic style."
In the mid-1960s Warhol and Lichtenstein were the undisputed titans of Pop art. And if Warhol was swayed by the curious allure of commodities, Lichtenstein remained fixed on the differences between the sexes. Throughout his career Lichtenstein returned to the same two subjects: women in distress and men with their machines. As a counterpoint to the stylized ‘Love Story’ compositions of Drowning Girl, 1963, and Oh Jeff… I Love You, too… But…,1964, he depicted hyper-macho canvases of aggression like Whaam! and Okay Hot-Shot, Okay!,1963, both based on war comics.
In the late 1970s, his interest in speed and machismo extended to a mobile work of art when BMW commissioned him to paint a special turbocharged version of one of their cars. “I wanted to use painted lines as a road, pointing the way for the car. The design also shows the scenery as it passes by,” Lichtenstein remarked. “This car mirrors all these things even before it takes to the road.”
Major works by Lichtenstein are some of the most sought-after Contemporary paintings to appear on the market. At Sotheby’s his works have achieved headline-making results, as with his 1964 work Sleeping Girl, offered in New York in 2012, an assured depiction of a strikingly intimate and vulnerable moment – a masterpiece of irresistible seduction. The designer Tom Ford remarked that it “has us look at where we were culturally at that period of time”. The painting sold for $44.8 million, a new world record for the artist.