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Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective Opens At The Art Institute

By Amy Cavanaugh in Arts & Entertainment on May 26, 2012 4:00PM

Roy Lichtenstein, American (1923-1997). The Ring (Engagement), 1962. Oil on canvas. 121.9 x 177.8 cm (48 x 70 in). © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. Stefan T. Edlis Collection.

Retrospectives can be difficult shows to take in. They’re often massive, with so much art to inhale that you leave without much sense of what the artist was trying to accomplish. So, heading into Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective at the Art Institute, which is the first-ever retrospective of the artist’s work, I wasn't sure how curators James Rondeau and Sheena Wagstaff would approach Lichtenstein. He's best known for his Ben-Day dots and representations of comic book art, but the artist was rather prolific, dabbled in numerous styles, and created many series of works. That’s not an easy task for any curator.

Thankfully, they succeeded in creating a show that offers a large but edited overview for the Lichtenstein newcomer, while giving seasoned appreciators of the pop artist’s work a show that really explores each stage of his career while highlighting some series you likely never knew he painted.

Arranged chronologically, the show features 170 works that Lichtenstein created between 1950 and his death in 1997. He dabbled in cubism, moved onto a short-lived stage as an Abstract Expressionist, then found success as a pop artist in the 1970s. Here’s where you’ll find works that begin to critique mass media. There's Hot Dog With Mustard, which idealizes the classic dish, and Washing Machine, which praises innovation and the new.

The next two rooms are what you likely imagine when you think of Lichtenstein—large scale appropriations of characters from comic books call attention to the emotion and story contained within a simple, formulaic style, while Abstract Expressionist-tinged explosions and brushstrokes get a whole gallery.

Roy Lichtenstein, American (1923-1997). Haystack, 1969. Oil on canvas. 45.7 x 61 cm (18 x 24 in). © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. The Ruben Family.
At the center of the show is the only segment not arranged chronologically—Art History. From 1951 to 1990, Lichtenstein took famous paintings—like Monet’s haystacks and Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Washington—and put his own spin on them, critiquing art history by taking it apart. The retrospective winds down with a beautiful mirror series that posits that everything reflected in a mirror is a ready-made painting and drawings that Lichtenstein made to sketch out paintings.

The final room of the show is of Chinese-style landscapes, which almost seem to come out of nowhere, until you remember that Lichtenstein dabbled in landscapes in the late 1960s, when he was drawn to the ubiquity and cliché of the subject. These paintings are surprising but beautiful, and make a quiet and lovely end to the retrospective. Lichtenstein was an artist concerned with how the mass media portrayed subjects, and his irony-steeped work feels fresh and relevant. It’s a stunning, colorful show, and thought-provoking tour through art history.

The Art Institute has a video of the artist's widow, Dorothy, talking about her husband's work. It's also a way to see how the art looks on the wall until you can see the show.