Lichtenstein based many of his early paintings on imagery he found in comic books. The source for this work is Run for Love! published by DC Comics in 1962, the cover of which the artist significantly altered to arrive at the finished composition. In the original illustration, the drowning girl’s boyfriend appears in the background, clinging to a capsized boat. Lichtenstein cropped the image dramatically, showing the girl alone and encircled by a threatening wave. He changed the caption from “I don’t care if I have a cramp!” to “I don’t care!” and the boyfriend’s name from Mal to Brad. In addition to appropriating comic books’ melodramatic content, Lichtenstein manually simulated the Benday dots used in the mechanical reproduction of images.
Gallery label from 2011.
As a Pop artist, Lichtenstein fused “high” and “low” forms of visual culture in his work, uniting fine art with everyday materials. He was particularly inspired by the heightened emotions and stylized imagery of mass-market comic books, which he recreated in large-scale oil paintings. The scene depicted in Drowning Girl was taken from “Run for Love!,” the lead story in issue 83 of DC Comics’ Secret Hearts, from 1962. The original illustration fills an entire page; it shows the drowning girl’s boyfriend in the background, clinging to an overturned boat, and includes a long narrative text. Lichtenstein cropped the image dramatically, focusing on the girl’s anguished expression and the menacing waves that wrap around her. He also shortened the text in the thought bubble beside the heroine’s head, resulting in a more ambiguous story, and changed her boyfriend’s name from Mal to Brad—a name he found more “heroic.”
Still, Lichtenstein stayed faithful to the comic book’s visual language, emphasizing its stark lines, contrasting colors, and grainy quality. He painted by hand the Benday dots that were historically used in newspapers and other forms of mechanical reproduction to give the illusion of shading in illustrations. Here they are visible as the red spots filling the girl’s skin and lips and in the grayish tones of the water. Elevating the status of comic-book imagery by combining it with the fine-art medium of oil painting, Lichtenstein redefined high art by putting it in direct dialogue with mainstream popular culture.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)