Roy Lichtenstein at the Art Institute
The museum shows a new side of the Pop artist in a world-premiere exhibition.
On January 31, 1964, Life’s profile of Roy Lichtenstein asked, “Is He the Worst Artist in the U.S.?” No, the magazine concluded—but the article’s provocative title tapped into the controversy engulfing the Pop artist’s work.
“The early reviews were brutal,” says James Rondeau, chair of the Art Institute of Chicago’s department of contemporary art. Lichtenstein’s decision to incorporate scenes from comic books and cartoons into his paintings “was a perceived insult to the seriousness of fine art”—particularly Pop Art’s predecessor, Abstract Expressionism, Rondeau explains. “It didn’t seem to involve skill. It seemed mechanical: ergo, no talent.”
Five decades later, Lichtenstein (1923–97) is acclaimed around the world; a single comics-based painting by the artist can sell for upwards of $40 million. But what few know is Lichtenstein had an art career before and after his most famous Pop pieces—a career the Art Institute of Chicago will soon unveil to the public. On May 22, the museum presents more than 160 of Lichtenstein’s paintings, sculptures and drawings in an exhibition that travels to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; London’s Tate Modern and Paris’s Centre Pompidou following its Chicago premiere.
Though “Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective” boasts plenty of Pop crowd-pleasers, Rondeau hopes the exhibition, which he cocurated with Sheena Wagstaff (the Tate Modern’s former chief curator, who joined the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier this year), clears up misconceptions and introduces viewers to bodies of Lichtenstein’s work that are almost unknown. It’s the first show to address Lichtenstein’s career from start to finish, according to Rondeau, and the first major show since the artist’s death.
Lichtenstein’s Pop strategy of generating new ideas by singling out elements of art history and everyday visual culture still shapes contemporary art. It’s evident even in the hacked video games of new-media artist Cory Arcangel, whose Super Mario Clouds—the hit of the 2004 Whitney Biennial—removes everything from Super Mario Bros. but the puffy clouds in the game’s blue sky. Still, while “you can’t talk about [Jeff] Koons without talking about Lichtenstein,” Rondeau says, the Pop star’s direct influence is hard to trace. The curator attributes this to Lichtenstein’s reserved nature. Married with two sons, he secluded himself in his studio six days a week and tried to avoid giving interviews. “Yes, of course there were museum shows,” Rondeau adds, “but Roy became kind of like the pope. He wasn’t part of the discourse. He was just there on his pedestal.”
Lichtenstein’s deceptively immediate success didn’t endear him to critics. His first exhibition of Pop Art, held at New York’s Leo Castelli Gallery in 1962, sold out. However, the artist was almost 40 when he painted Look, Mickey (1961), a Mickey Mouse comic panel that Rondeau describes as his “Pop breakthrough.” By that time, Lichtenstein had already exhibited other styles of work for several years in Ohio, where he attended college, and in his native New York, to little fanfare. In the late 1950s, he tried Abstract Expressionism, but the movement’s emphasis on the heroic artist and individual self-expression didn’t suit him. “He was just so profoundly reserved,” the curator explains. When Lichtenstein visited Manhattan’s Cedar Tavern, where Abstract Expressionists including Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning held court, he was too shy to talk to them, as critic Michael Kimmelman reported in the artist’s New York Times obituary.