The work comes from the start of Lichtenstein’s career and belongs to his Early Pop period. It is a radical challenge to the convention of what is considered to be a legitimate subject for painting. It is one of the first images of Pop Art.
In the 1950’s Roy Lichtenstein (1923 – 1997) witnessed the American tradition of narrative painting being swept aside by Abstract Expressionism. He felt conventions in art and society were artificial constructs and should be challenged.
He decided to do this by using commercial art: advertising and comic, as his subject. In opposition to the establishment, which despised these forms, he described them as “classic and idealised” and “a purely American mythological subject matter.” He developed a new school of painting and re-imagined the imagery “by mimicking the cartoon style without the paint texture, calligraphic line, modulation — all the things involved in expressionism.”
Spray is one his early ventures into focusing on the “dumbest” and “worst” visual items, which became the basis for his practice, his fame and notoriety.
Success came relatively early to Lichtenstein. A colleague recognised the radical nature of his canvasses and arranged for his work to be seen, in 1960, by Leo Castelli. Castelli was New York’s leading dealer in contemporary art and had staged landmark exhibitions of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in 1958. After some initial hesitation, Castelli mounted an exhibition of Lichtenstein’s work in 1962. It sold out and created a sensation. By the time of Lichtenstein’s second exhibition at the Castelli, in 1963, his work had been seen all over America and he, Rauschenberg, Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, were considered to have given the arts’ establishment a slap in the face.
Spray shows Lichtenstein at a pivotal point after he has resolved to use commercial images as his subject matter, but before he appropriated the Benday dots, minute, mechanical patterning used in commercial engraving, which was to become his trademark device.
Spray demonstrates the beginning of his re-interpretation of despised commercial imagery and the birth of a new art form.