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Roy Lichtenstein: Shaping Tokyo's Sculptural Landscape
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Roy Lichtenstein: Shaping Tokyo's Sculptural Landscape

Picture of Bethan Morgan
Updated: 9 February 2017
Rising to prominence during the 1960s, Roy Lichtenstein not only produced Pop Art masterpieces but developed a sculptural language. His brushstroke sculptures are part of cityscapes worldwide. Here, Bethan Morgan focuses on the 1994 Tokyo Brushstroke.

Roy Lichtenstein’s Benday-dots and comic strip imagery made him an influential figure in the Pop Art movement during the 1960s. During this period Lichtenstein had moved away from the anti-figurative forms of Abstract Expressionism and towards the defined subject matter and commercial aesthetic of Pop Art. The movement embraced a style that was determined by its production technique. Figures like Andy Warhol would utilise industrial processes to dictate visual aspects of their work. Lichtenstein, however, explored the relevance of the brushstroke, in addition to its representations. In historical terms, the brushstroke determined aesthetic traits of artistic movements and eras. For example, the Renaissance aimed at producing paintings with no visible trace of brushstrokes, referring wholly to the subject matter and avoiding its production altogether.

The brushstroke itself is an intriguing concept. A vital participant in the creation of a painting, it is up to the artist should they want to use it within the aesthetics of the piece, or simply as a functional tool. Lichtenstein himself singles out the brushstroke to use as both the subject matter and as a means of production. His Brushstroke paintings depict a brush stroke, conventionally painted, yet made to look commercially produced. Lichtenstein immediately subverts the audience’s expectations, forcing them to question the reality before them.

In the 1980’s, Lichtenstein extended his familiar brushstroke subject matter by transforming its two-dimensional existence into a three-dimensional one. He began to produce towering brushstroke sculptures which can be found in Spain, America and Tokyo. These public art works simultaneously capture a sense of stillness and motion, and their enlarged scale draws out an ambiguity in their form.

In 1994 Lichtenstein erected Tokyo Brushstrokes in Tokyo; a cosmopolitan city famed for its population, expensive land and commercial culture. As one of the world’s financial powers, the city is dense with dominating skyscrapers and a buzz of industrial progress. Its urban landscape is unrecognisable compared to that immediately following World War II, as huge portions of the capital were destroyed by bombs and then re-built from scratch.

Lichtenstein’s Tokyo Brushstrokes were one of the first public art installations to be built in the new city and were received with mixed reviews. Previous to the sculpture, Japan’s incorporation of pubic art was non-existent. Embedded within the monumentous architectural environment, Lichtenstein’s sculptures regain a scale which contributes to the city, yet does not alienate its residents, meanwhile introducing an element of artistic culture to the predominantly commercial fabric of the city. The artist comments on this by saying: ‘art should be available to the public, that’s the best possible art, regardless of whether the public likes it’.

Public sculptures, such as Lichtenstein’s, hold a social and cultural significance, reinventing the city space and encouraging the public to look at their surroundings differently. Lichtenstein’s work is valuable for its placement in a public space and accessibility to all. Irregardless of background or class, Tokyo Brushstrokes invites the public to discuss, criticise and engage with the art work when they may not otherwise be presented with the opportunity to do so. The socio-political significance of this cultural injection is invaluable to Tokyo as a whole. During an interview in 1994, a member of the public commented on Liechtenstein’s Tokyo Brushstrokes by stating:

‘to have a colourful sculpture like this among these dark buildings just makes the city seem more cheerful…it makes [people] think and makes them feel things, there aren’t many things that you see everyday that can do that. I think that’s what makes it so important’.


Since the addition of this pioneering public work, public art has flourished within the city, and today one cannot escape the importance of art when considering Tokyo’s identity. Other notable public artworks in Tokyo include Maman by Louise Bourgeois, Love by Robert Indiana and Polly Stela by Carsten Nicolai.

Watch a clip of Roy Lichtenstein: Tokyo Brushstroke:

By Bethan Morgan