Airplanes and Roy Lichtenstein: Tracing the Early Influences on the Artist

A medieval tapestry depicting knights in armor sparked the interest of the recently returned World War II veteran.

Suzanne Goldsmith
Columbus Monthly
Roy Lichtenstein, "Pilot," C. 1948

In Columbus, perhaps more than anywhere else, artist Roy Lichtenstein is associated with aviation. That’s because of his 26-foot-tall pop art sculpture, “Brushstrokes in Flight,” which was commissioned by the city in 1984 and is installed inside John Glenn Columbus International Airport.

But airplanes have long been a theme in the work of the prolific pop artist. Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making 1948–1960, on view through June 5 at Columbus Museum of Art, documents the painter’s early career, starting with another aviation picture: “Pilot” (above), which Lichtenstein created with pastels on colored paper in 1948 while a student at Ohio State, depicts an aviator on a prop plane.

When Lichtenstein made the painting, he was fascinated by a book about France’s medieval Bayeux Tapestry, says Beth Finch, chief curator at the Colby College Museum of Art and the co-curator, with Marshall N. Price, of the exhibition. The 70-meter-long medieval work recounted the Norman Conquest and featured depictions of knights in armor on horseback and on boats, images that apparently sparked the interest of the recently returned World War II veteran.

“It makes sense to me that Lichtenstein would have been interested in planes,” Finch says. “If a knight was plopped down in the 20th century, he would probably have a plane that looked like it was protected by armor.” In the 1960s, when the artist began making his famous comic book-inspired paintings, fighter pilots were a frequent subject.

The 90 or so works in the current show don’t include any of those pixelated, comic-inspired paintings, but they offer a glimpse at the roots of that groundbreaking work. “There are real connections between the works you see at the CMA and the artist you think you know well,” Finch says.

This story is from the May 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.