Roy Lichtenstein was 38 years old and had been exhibiting in New York for a decade when he made Look Mickey, his breakthrough painting that announced the Pop Art style. By now the origins of the painting are legendary. Stories surrounding its creation include a drawing challenge from his children, the chance discovery of the source material in a bubble gum wrapper, and a dialogue with the artist Allan Kaprow. However, the truth is that this idea had been percolating for years.
The impetus for Look Mickey began four years earlier. In 1957 Lichtenstein used an opaque projector to trace a large image of Mickey Mouse on his son Mitchell's bedroom wall. Later that year, images of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Bugs Bunny appeared in his Abstract Expressionist—inspired paintings (these canvases were later destroyed). In 1958 Lichtenstein created a series of five drawings (two of which appear in the gallery devoted to works on paper) featuring Mickey, Donald, and Bugs intermingled with brushy markings of pastel, crayon, and ink. Finally, in 1961, this painting was fully realized, based on an illustration from the Little Golden Book Donald Duck Lost and Found (Golden Press, 1960).
It is hard to imagine that such an image could have been so shocking at the time it was made. In this painting, Lichtenstein was exploring ideas of mechanical reproduction, specifically the printing process, through the fine-art language of painting. His palette was limited to the barest essentials—the three primary colors and white—and he employed hand-painted dots, the standard form for denoting tonality in comics, sparingly on Mickey's face and in Donald's eyes. Yet his style was still in transition. Soon to come would be the heavy black outlines and uniform dots that are the trademark of Lichtenstein's Pop Art style, and by 1964 he would have Life magazine, where Look Mickey was first "shown" to the world, asking, "Is he the worst artist in the U.S.?"
Roy Lichtenstein. Look Mickey, 1961. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, Dorothy and Roy Lichtenstein, Gift of the Artist, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art.