The world has changed since the last traveling Roy Lichtenstein retrospective, which opened nearly 20 years ago at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Pop Art has not only continued to capture the imagination of the public, but it has also flourished, helped in part by social networking, global connectivity and a universal fascination with the media.
Curators at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Tate Modern in London have spent five years organizing their own retrospective, which opens in Chicago on May 16 before going to the National Gallery of Art in Washington in October, the Tate Modern in February 2013 and the Pompidou Center in Paris that July.
Unlike the Guggenheim show, which focused on Lichtenstein’s paintings and sculptures, this exhibition features a significant number of his drawings — nearly 50. James Rondeau, chairman of contemporary art at the Chicago museum, who has put together the show with Sheena Wagstaff, chief curator of the Tate Modern, explained their reasoning: “People don’t understand that many of the images Lichtenstein took from advertisements, comic books, product packaging, you name it, are not exact reproductions. And it is through his drawings that you see the transformative act from original source to the finished painting.”
Lichtenstein, who died in 1997, created images that are now the stuff of legend. He took advertisements for products like dishwashing detergents and foot medications, hot dogs and sneakers; he reinterpreted Monet and Cézanne, Picasso and Brancusi, Chinese landscapes and architectural entablatures. And of course there were his most famous works — those deft yet humorous reinterpretations of comic books.
This show will cover the entire scope of Lichtenstein’s career, from his earliest experimentation with abstraction right through to his late interpretations of the female nude. It will also chronicle the bumps along the way, like his early years, when his work was harshly criticized as vulgar and empty. (The title of a Life magazine article in 1964 asked, “Is He the Worst Artist in the U.S.?”) The exhibition will also chart Lichtenstein’s initial brush with success, after his first show at the Castelli Gallery in New York in 1962, when the art world began to take him seriously. And significant attention will be paid to his 1960s comic book paintings and drawings as well as his art historical images from the 1980s, when he became one of the most revered living painters in the world.
Some things will be new to viewers because they have never been included in a public exhibition. There will be works from the artist’s family and estate and others that had been secreted away in private collections.
One section will be devoted to his examination of the female body — a subject he visited on and off throughout his career. Late in life he took this subject and filtered it through the lens of Matisse and Picasso. “They are reinterpretations of the nude as an art historical genre,” Mr. Rondeau said, “but these late works are also a kind of return to the fundamentals of Pop Art and to his 1960s comic book sources.
“It shows that he was a tried-and-true Pop Artist from beginning to end.”