Lichtenstein Before (and After) the Pop Hits

We tend to think of Roy Lichtenstein in one context: Pop art's master parodist. His transformed cartoon panels—with hyperventilating speech balloons and transcribed sounds like whaam! and varoom!—sent up mid-20th-century commercial visual culture even as they dragged it into the realm of fine art.

Roy Lichtenstein's Laocoön (1988), inspired by classical mythology, will be on view in Chicago.

No museum's contemporary-art collection is complete without one of Lichtenstein's sighing blondes or square-jawed fighter pilots. But that's usually all visitors see.

The Art Institute of Chicago intends to challenge this pigeonholing with an expansive new look at Lichtenstein's vast and varied output over half a century. The major new show—billed as the largest survey of the artist's work ever mounted, and the first since his death in 1997—opens to the public on Wednesday.

Culled from public and private collections in America, Europe and elsewhere, "Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective" brings together more than 160 of the artist's paintings, sculptures and drawings—several never shown before. After its Windy City stop, the show opens Oct. 14 at Washington's National Gallery of Art, next Feb. 21 at London's Tate Modern and July 3, 2013, at Paris's Centre Pompidou. The underlying message: Roy, we hardly knew you.

This look "at the full breadth" of Lichtenstein's work, as Art Institute president and director Douglas Druick puts it, dovetails with continuing demand for Lichtenstein's work at major art auctions. His "Sleeping Girl," a comic-strip painting, sold Thursday at Sotheby's in New York for $44.9 million, a record for the artist.

Such classic Pop works of Lichtenstein, born in 1923, are well represented in the new exhibition. They include 1961's "Look Mickey" (which appropriates Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse), some black-and-white renderings of phone-book ads for washing machines and sneakers, and the famous recomposed cartoons. But so are Lichtenstein's pre-Pop experiments in Cubo-Futurism and the dominant (and ultimately rejected) style of Lichtenstein's youth, abstract expressionism.

In later years, as an entire 80-foot-long gallery in the retrospective demonstrates, the artist spent much of his time in witty dialogue with art history. He produced paintings that borrow from and comment on works from antiquity, traditional Japanese landscapes and American-history painting (such as Emanuel Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware" of 1851). Lichtenstein's "dialogues" were also with such artists as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian and 1980s neo-expressionists like Julian Schnabel.

“The signature comic-book heroines disappeared, but Lichtenstein kept offering fresh takes on art.”

At the same time, the show suggests that much of Lichtenstein's mature work flowed out of the impulse that animated his Pop masterpieces of the 1960s: a desire to critique the present moment in art by offering fresh perspectives on the forgotten, devalued and/or mass-produced art of the past.

"After 1966, when Lichtenstein's heroines and pilots from the comics disappear, people think the Pop phase is over, but that's not true," says the show's co-curator, the Art Institute's James Rondeau. "As his work moves from the cartoon panels to explosions, for example, it's the same kind of parodying of extreme emotional states—the histrionics of war, the melodrama of heartbreak—that the comics are engaged with in a very detached way."

The exhibition closes in Chicago on Sept. 3.