Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective

It was over 90° in Chicago today. Climate change is making this incredible city more desirable with each passing year. But never mind that. Hot weather and the pop art king drew me to one of my favorite places on earth, The Art Institute of Chicago. I went with my older son and as we scaled the noble steps off Michigan Avenue, we looked at each other and realized we have been doing this for nearly 25 years together. Art binds like nothing else.

The main event was the Roy Lichtenstein Retrospective. It was the first show to examine his works since his death on September 29, 1997. The show was years in the making and I’m sure it was challenging to collect just the right pieces to do justice to an art pioneer. Indeed Mr. Lichtenstein was a major dude. Early on he took lots of criticism from all corners, but pressed on nonetheless. I’m so happy he did.

The show is beyond massive. It engulfs several galleries of the AIC, carefully arranged and choreographed so even the casual observer can enjoy. Over 160 works created between 1950 and 1997 that includes paintings, drawings and sculpture. Each time you turn a corner the senses are assaulted with dots and colors and explosions of primary colors. So much of what he created looks machine made, but all of it was crafted by hand. Perhaps he invented more than created. Borrowed more than others. But therein lies the power of Lichtenstein. Like Warhol, how it’s made is nearly as important as what is made. Both sourced from everyday objects. Lichtenstein invented a new easel that could spin, allowing it to keep pace with his mind and brush. The result feels somewhat slight of hand, but everything was pre-meditated.

I was completely taken aback by his landscapes. Most of my time over the years was spent studying the larger, more commercial works. But the landscapes were made for Lichtenstein. Dots turned into the line of a horizon or the deep blue of the ocean. These felt more meditative and focused and it gave him more of a chance to broaden his skill.

Lichtenstein once said in an interview in 1962:

I’m never drawing the object myself, I’m only drawing a depiction of the object—a kind of crystallized symbol of it.

About halfway through the exhibit there was a small room, painted a deep brown, displaying dozens of sketches and studies. Amazing to see how he brought things to life. Personal notes on what options could be explored from the shape and size of the dots to the color. Many of the studies were high fidelity, showing his deep need for quality.

As an accidental post-modernist I have deep appreciation for what Lichtenstein gave us. His work is an act of borrowing, decompiling, and rebuilding classic modern executions.

I believe many people dismiss Lichtenstein out of hand as cold or not professional. This is a mistake. If you can make the trip to Chicago you will see for yourself.

Images taken by Steve A Furman inside the exhibit.

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