After completing several paintings with identifiable comic-book characters in the early 1960s, Lichtenstein began to focus on subject matter taken from other forms of printed media. These canvases feature objects and actions that are deadpan renditions of consumer advertisements or rituals of domestic life.
Cup of Coffee is an idealized, simplified version of its real-life counterpart. But, at the same time, it is not a realistic image. Instead, it highlights the commonly accepted pictorial conventions that designers and advertisers adopt within media. For example, the simple black-and-white cross on the left side of the cup stands for reflection of light and shadow. Also, we know that that sort of double helix form stands for steam or aroma somehow when, in fact, our experience has nothing to do with what that form is. That's absolutely not what steam looks like, but we all accept it as steam within our visual lexicon.
Among many others in the show, images like this one show us the way in which images from the world are transferred in commercial printing in this coded, somewhat sophisticated graphic language. As Lichtenstein himself said, "I don't care what, say, a cup of coffee looks like. I only care about how it's drawn, and what, through the additions of various commercial artists, the reproduction machinery has gotten this image of a coffee cup to look like through the years."