Left Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), Reverie from 11 Pop Artists, Volume II, 1965. Screenprint in colours, numbered ‘XIX’. Image 27 x 23 in (68.6 x 58.3 cm); sheet 30⅛ x 24 in (76.5 x 61

Celebrities to soup cans: Pop Art that challenged the tradition of printmaking

Engaging with mass-produced objects and images, Warhol, Lichtenstein and others directly upended pre-existing ideas of what art could be

Pop Art is often considered a reaction — even an attack on — Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s. While Abstract Expressionist painters like Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko were interested primarily in colour and form, Pop artists returned to figuration and representation using recognisable objects from everyday life. 

Comics, celebrities, cans of soup — nothing was off limits. Indeed, the more ubiquitous the subject, the greater its subversive potential. The renaissance of printmaking in the 1960s came in a large part from this sentiment, combined with these artists’ new aesthetics and modes of reproduction. 

The artists included in Prints and Multiples, at Christie’s New York on 27 October, showed how prints could go beyond flat, two-dimensional compositions on paper. Their works showcase not just their skill as artists but their engagement with the collective imagery and experiences of society, which revolutionised the medium.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Mao, 1972. The complete set of ten screenprints in colours. Each Sheet 36 x 36 in (914 x 914 mm). Estimate $700,000–$1,000,000. Offered in Prints and Multiples on 27 October at Christies New York
Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Mao, 1972. The complete set of ten screenprints in colours. Each Sheet: 36 x 36 in (914 x 914 mm). Estimate: $700,000–$1,000,000. Offered in Prints and Multiples on 27 October at Christie's New York

Andy Warhol 

Andy Warhol’s experiments in printing, perhaps more than those of any other artists, shaped the art world’s conversations around the role and meaning of Pop Art in a changing society. The present Electric Chair prints from 1971 and 1978 are part of his vast Death and Disaster series, which crystallised the relationship between the burgeoning art movement and the social and political issues of the day.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Electric Chairs One Print, 1971. Screenprint in colours, on wove paper. 35½ x 48 in (89.5 x 121 cm). Estimate $10,000-15,000. Offered in Prints and Multiples on 27 October at Christies New York
Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Electric Chairs: One Print, 1971. Screenprint in colours, on wove paper. 35½ x 48 in (89.5 x 121 cm). Estimate: $10,000-15,000. Offered in Prints and Multiples on 27 October at Christie's New York

The subject of the print is a press photograph from 1963 depicting the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison in New York, where two American citizens were executed for leaking information during the Second World War. 

Warhol blew up the photograph and then transferred it in glue onto a silk-screen. When the ink was applied, it would go through the silk but not through the glue, resulting in a slightly different image each time. The print maintains the graininess of the original photo, which adds to its haunting effect, even when printing with fluorescent colours.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Marilyn Monroe (Marilyn) one print, 1967. Screenprint in colours. 36 x 36 in (91.4 x 91.4 cm). Estimate $150,000-$200,000. Offered in Prints and Multiples on 27 October at Christies New York
Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Marilyn Monroe (Marilyn): one print, 1967. Screenprint in colours. 36 x 36 in (91.4 x 91.4 cm). Estimate: $150,000-$200,000. Offered in Prints and Multiples on 27 October at Christie's New York

Warhol carried over these techniques into his Marilyn and Mao prints, which explore the ubiquity of celebrity. In Warhol’s hand, no two images are printed the same. The infinite reproducibility of the silk-screened image suggests not only how — in real life — repetition can be used to question or nullify a perceived success, but also how, as the lives of Marilyn Monroe and Mao Tsetung demonstrate, success necessarily comes from a process of repetition and failure. 

Roy Lichtenstein 

Known for his appropriation of Ben Day dots and comic book aesthetics, Roy Lichtenstein created images that lived firmly in the scission between high- and low-brow art. His signature style proved highly controversial, with comic book artists and critics alike labelling him as a plagiarist. 

But it is precisely this clash that brought the public to his work. He used commercial techniques — such as the shading, and restricted four-tone colour palettes of mass-media printing — but manipulated their effects. 

Instead of the colours and dots blending to create a single image, their distinction and comic-book imperfection is visible at a large scale, maintaining the sentiment of graphic aesthetics while adding Lichtenstein’s own twist.

Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), Reverie from 11 Pop Artists, Volume II, 1965. Screenprint in colours, numbered ‘XIX’. Image 27 x 23 in (68.6 x 58.3 cm); sheet 30⅛ x 24 in (76.5 x 61 cm). Estimate $120,000-$180,000. Offered in Prints and Multiples on 27 October at Christies New York
Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), Reverie from 11 Pop Artists, Volume II, 1965. Screenprint in colours, numbered ‘XIX’. Image: 27 x 23 in (68.6 x 58.3 cm); sheet: 30⅛ x 24 in (76.5 x 61 cm). Estimate: $120,000-$180,000. Offered in Prints and Multiples on 27 October at Christie's New York

He based the present image, Reverie, from 1965, on a frame from the DC Comics artist Arthur Peddy (1916-2002). Lichtenstein modified the original by zooming in on the woman’s face so that it fills the entire composition with her wistful expression. He eliminated her earrings to focus more on the gentle curl of her hair and her downturned eyes. 

The lyrics at the top come from a ballad popularised by Nat King Cole in the 1950’s, perfectly evoking the melodramatic sentiment of Lichtenstein’s heroine. 

Pop art developed into a worldwide phenomenon that changed the course of art history. Reformulating Duchampian concepts of the readymade for a new era and incorporating modern technology, these artists bridged a historical gap and paved the way for the future of contemporary art. High- and low-brow were no longer easily distinguishable, and the question of ‘What is art?’ became more pressing than ever.

Claes Oldenburg 

The 1960s marked the rise of multiples — or, editioned sculpture — in art. Claes Oldenburg, known for his large-scale installations of ordinary objects cast in painted plaster, became one of its finest purveyors. Like Warhol and Lichtenstein, he used images and objects that were taken for granted or forgotten, and revitalised them with his own hand.

Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929), Wedding Souvenir, 1966. Cast plaster multiple. 5¾ x 6½ x 2½ in (14.6 x 16.5 x 6.4 cm). Estimate $1,000-$1,500. Offered in Prints and Multiples on 27 October at Christies New York
Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929), Wedding Souvenir, 1966. Cast plaster multiple. 5¾ x 6½ x 2½ in (14.6 x 16.5 x 6.4 cm). Estimate: $1,000-$1,500. Offered in Prints and Multiples on 27 October at Christie's New York

An example of this is his Profile Airflow from 1969, a sculpture of a car inspired by the 1934 Chrysler Airflow cast in soft plastic. The Airflow had been conceived as a streamlined design that was both stylish and innovative but, upon its debut at the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago, it was immediately rejected by both critics and consumers.

Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929), Profile Airflow, 1969. Cast-polyurethane relief over two-colour lithograph on Special Arjomari paper. 33½ x 65½ x 4 in (48 x 40.6 x 10.2 cm). Estimate $60,000-$80,000. Offered in Prints and Multiples on 27 October at Christies New York
Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929), Profile Airflow, 1969. Cast-polyurethane relief over two-colour lithograph on Special Arjomari paper. 33½ x 65½ x 4 in (48 x 40.6 x 10.2 cm). Estimate $60,000-$80,000. Offered in Prints and Multiples on 27 October at Christie's New York

It proved the perfect subject for Oldenburg. ‘Printmaking, like car making, is an analytic activity,’ he wrote in his diary during the production of this work. ‘A matter of separation of elements in order to put them back together again, in a condition of mass production.’ 

His vision of a three-dimensional object that was ‘transparent like a swimming pool but of a consistency like flesh’ would go on to become an enduring testament to both his own ingenuity and that of ambitious carmakers of the past.

Tom Wesselmann 

Despite being associated with Pop Art, Tom Wesselmann felt that his real peers were the Modern painters of the 20th century. Like them, his most frequent subjects were the female nude and the still-life. But he experimented with them relentlessly, reinvigorating the genre with unorthodox and contemporary media.

Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004), Fast Sketch Still Life, 1989. Screenprint in colours on museum board. 56¾ x 84 in (144.1 x 213.3 cm). Estimate $7,000-$10,000. Offered in Prints and Multiples on 27 October at Christies New York
Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004), Fast Sketch Still Life, 1989. Screenprint in colours on museum board. 56¾ x 84 in (144.1 x 213.3 cm). Estimate: $7,000-$10,000. Offered in Prints and Multiples on 27 October at Christie's New York

His bright, crisp pop imagery lends itself to the medium of printmaking. His large-scale silkscreens from the ‘80s command attention due to their vibrancy and size.

Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004), Smoker, from An American Portrait, 1976. Screenprint in colours on museum board. 26 x 19½ in. (66 x 49.5 cm).  Estimate $6,000-$8,000. Offered in Prints and Multiples on 27 October at Christies New York
Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004), Smoker, from An American Portrait, 1976. Screenprint in colours on museum board. 26 x 19½ in. (66 x 49.5 cm). Estimate: $6,000-$8,000. Offered in Prints and Multiples on 27 October at Christie's New York

Smoker and Fast Sketch Still Life are two-dimensional prints that use colour to bring their individual elements forward. Owing to Wesselmann’s lifelong practice of illusion, the flat elements paradoxically create a convincing impression of depth. 

Ten from Leo Castelli 

Made in 1968, Ten from Leo Castelli, perhaps more than any other edition, exemplifies Pop Art’s new sensibility in printmaking. Comprising ten graphic objects from as many artists, this portfolio-in-a-box was created by Tanglewood Press on behalf of Leo Castelli, one of New York’s most influential gallery owners during the Pop Art era. 

Many of the works included question the fundamentals of the printing process. Robert Rauschenberg’s Passport, for example, challenges the notion that a print must be made on paper, as the artist lithographed his images onto clear plastic sheets. In Table Object, Donald Judd bypasses the confines of planographic lithography altogether, producing an object made of metal.

Various artists, Ten from Leo Castelli, 1968. Ten signed and numbered screenprints, lithographs and multiples in colours on various papers and materials. Overall 25⅛ x 20⅞ x 8¾ in (63.8 x 53.1 x 22.3 cm). Estimate $60,000-$80,000. Offered in Prints and Multiples on 27 October at Christies New York
Various artists, Ten from Leo Castelli, 1968. Ten signed and numbered screenprints, lithographs and multiples in colours on various papers and materials. Overall: 25⅛ x 20⅞ x 8¾ in (63.8 x 53.1 x 22.3 cm). Estimate: $60,000-$80,000. Offered in Prints and Multiples on 27 October at Christie's New York

The Pop era blurred the once sacred boundaries between painting, drawing, sculpture and prints. Three-dimensional forms, usually hand-painted or hand-stencilled, became accepted as graphic objects. Ten from Leo Castelli embodies this newfound conception of the art object — becoming part of a collector’s daily life, rather than stored away for safekeeping. 

Pop art developed into a worldwide phenomenon that changed the course of art history. Reformulating Duchampian concepts of the readymade for a new era and incorporating modern technology, these artists bridged a historical gap and paved the way for the future of contemporary art. High- and low-brow were no longer easily distinguishable, and the question of ‘What is art?’ became more pressing than ever.