Art History

Roy Lichtenstein — Stepping Out is a painting done in oil and magna on canvas by Roy Lichtenstein. (Magna is a plastic painting product made of permanent pigment ground in acrylic resen with solvents and plasticizer. This material mixes with turpentine and mineral spirits and dries rapidly with a mat finish) ( in 1978, this work is 85 inches in heighth and 70 inches in width, 218.4 cm by 177.8 cm. This work of art, accession number 1980,420, is located at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (5th Avenue and 82nd Street). It was purchased in 1980 as a Lila Acheson Wallace Gift with additional funding through the Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, the Arthur Lejwa Fund, in honor of Jean Arp; the Bernhill Fund, the Joseph H. Hazen Foundation Inc., the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation Inc., and gifts fromWalter Bareiss, Marie Bannon McHenry, Louise Smith, and Stephen C. Swid.

The painting is signed on the reverse with the signature of the painter, R. Lichtenstein, dated 1978. The Metropolitan Museum of Art also owns and displays Lichtenstein’s Study for Stepping Out, 4 inches x 3 3/8 inches, done in pencil in 1978.

A chose to explore this particular work because it appealed to my sense of humor as an example of a revered and popular work that makes fun of itself as well as its environment and the artistic milieu that fosters its fashionableness. This work by Lichtenstein symbolizes for me the central theme Jonathan Fineberg’s book, Art Since 1940, Strategies of Being. As he discusses twentieth century art, Fineberg admirably displays what he terms in his introduction the “tension between the inner self and the world” that creates a “happening of truth” in a work of art. If, as Fineberg further proposes, artworks represents “the spiritual concerns of the individual as the origin and defining rule for the forms” (Fineberg 18), then Lichtensteins use of comic book style represents both what modern humanity looks like on the outside as well as our empty inner hollowness. As shallow throwaway creations of the media, we lack inner substance as well. An artist, like Lichtenstein, who recognizes this, puts his own inner concerns onto canvas and through his “mechanical and removed” (Fineberg 261) style, mirrors his contemporaries to themselves. What an admirable concept, to create art that symbolizes the shallowness of contempory society and makes fun of itself at the same time.

The work Stepping Out in particular seems to me to epitomize the superficiality of the dating experience. The couple who are “stepping out” are dolled up and ready to roll out for a big night on the town. Their lack of facial expression shows that will get exactly what they expect, which is a dressed up experience that means absolutely nothing. They, like every other couple they encounter in the evening’s hot spots, will look “hip” and “in.” They may all imagine they are having a wonderful time, but buried somewhere inside is an unexplored twinge of doubt. As Fineberg says: “By turning everything into a form that can be reproduced in newspapers or on television, the media homogenize experience” (Fineberg 261). This homogenization is perfectly represented in Stepping Out. This couple, as they prepare to hit the nightspots, does not reach out to us emotionally. Both artist and viewer maintain their distance and yet their lack of substance is totally apparent. Again as Fineberg so aptly puts it: “Lichtenstein’s detachment from the explicit subject is the real subject of his work” (Fineberg 261).

Roy Lichtenstein, is a well-known American pop art painter who lived from1923-1997. Lichtenstein who was born and grew up in New York City, studied briefly during high school summers at the Art Students League with Reginald Marsh. The early Art League experience had long standing reverberations as discussed by Fineberg: “The sentimentality and concern with common culture and life in the paintings of Marsh left an enduring impact on Lichtenstein’s work, in his choice of subject matte” (Fineberg 260).

After graduation from high school Lichtenstein attended Ohio State University in Columbus where he was influenced by Hoyt L. Sherman’s studies on the nature of human vision and perception. Lichtenstein was drafted into the army in 1943 and served in Europe until his discharge in 1946, after which he returned to Ohio State under the GI Bill, receiving his 1946 and his M.F.A. In 1949. From 1946 to 1951 he remained at Ohio State as an instructor, after which he taught at the State University of New York at Oswego, and Douglass College at Rutgers University, in New Brusnswick, N.J. (

After completing his academic work Lichtenstein returned to New York and worked as a graphic artist and commercial designer from 1951 through 1957. This experience is evident in the art work to follow. Like Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein in his work both commented on and profited by the conversion of art into commodity. Early in his career Lichtenstein used “found objects from the urban environment” (Fineberg 260), wanting his work “to look programmed or impersonal” (Fineberg 259), as it probed the indifferent, media centered, mass culture of America. Though his early work was in the abstract expressionist style, by the late fifties Lichtenstein became known but for his large scale cartoon images and comic sculptures. By 1961 Lichtenstein was completely immersed in creating art from pop culture merchandising images. In 1962, after his first one-man exhibit, at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, Lichtenstein catapulted into the art world spotlight, earning fame and fortune as a major player in the Pop Art movement.

Lichtenstein’s best known comic-strip paintings, such as Eddie Diptych (1962), Girl At Piano, (1963), and Good Morning, Darling (1964), are blowups of original cartoon characters, reproduced by hand, using the benday dot technique and the bright primary colors employed in printing. Lichtenstein’s later works, including Stepping Out, show the influence of Matisse and Picasso as cubism allows him to add a further evolutionary contribution to Pop Art. Lichtenstein’s paintings depicting soap opera drama and comic strip hyper-emotionalism comment ironically on the culture they mirror. As Pop Art Lichtenstein’s work not only analyses his media haunted culture, but adds to the sick syndrome of human kind molded by mass media, controlled, even emotionally by ads, magazines, and television. Through his paintings Lichtenstein is showing how, like robots, as modern humans, we have no true feelings of our own, but are created by the media. In 1993 Lichtenstein was honored with a retrospective of his work at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

In Stepping Out, Lichtenstein in his usual manner, confines his color scheme to primary colors and black and white. The painting appears to be quite simple in style and subject. Constructed in the thickly outlined comic strip style, without shading, the couple comes across as both unrealistic, and yet larger than life, which is exactly the image with which the advertising industry bombarded the public: Buy our products and your life will be bigger and better.

The lack of shading in Stepping Out adds to the comic book quality, and the dots, called Ben Day dots (Fineberg 262), are used to imitate commercial screening techniques. This procedure serves for Lichtenstein to achieve a mechanical look and to produce “the crass, visual punch of popular media imagery” (Fineberg 263). He never wants us to forget how much we are addicted to our Sunday comics. Under this simple surface lies “a sophisticated art founded on a great deal of knowledge and skill” ( / collections). Under the simplicity also lies a message. Lichtenstein’s couple, a man and a woman, dressed for “Stepping Out” appear side by side:

The male is based on a figure in Fernand Leger’s painting “Three Musicians” of 1944 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), but seen in mirror image. He wears a straw hat, high-collared shirt, and striped tie; the flower in his lapel is borrowed from another Leger painting. The female figure, with her dramatically reduced and displaced features, resembles the Surrealistic women depicted by Picasso during the 1930s. Her face has been reduced to a single eye set on its side, a mouth, and a long lock of cascading blond hair. ( / collections)

The manner in which Stepping Out is organized is far more complex than, for example, Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl (1963) which offers both comic book over emotionalism and speech bubble to emphasize pop culture homogenization. The composition is precisely planned, almost formal in style:

The figures, while quite different in appearance and style of dress, are united through shape and color: the sweeping curve of the woman’s hair is answered by the curve of her companion’s lapel; the diagonal yellow of the end of her scarf is echoed in the yellow rectangle that covers the top of his face; the red Benday dots cover half of both faces; and the black that serves as background for the man invades the area behind the woman ( / collections).

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