WHAAM! Obsessive-Compulsive Pop Artist Roy Lichtenstein's Biggest-Ever Retrospective Hits Chicago

Roy Lichtenstein's "Sunrise," 1965
(© Estate of Roy Lichtenstein)

WHAT:Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective”

WHEN: May 22-September 3, Monday-Wednesday 10:30am-5pm, Thursday 10:30am-8pm, Friday-Saturday 10:30am-5pm

WHERE: Art Institute of Chicago, Regenstein Hall, 111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago

WHY THIS SHOW MATTERS: The Art Institute of Chicago may have several of Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s pieces in its permanent collection, but during this monumental survey the number of his artworks lining the museum's walls will increase exponentially. Over 160 drawings, paintings, and sculptures are included in the exhibition, which explores the evolution of his practice from abstractionist to refined avant-garde painter of “Bratatats,” “Varooms,” “Whaams,” and many wild-haired women with their dryly witty thought bubbles. Visitors will have a chance to dissect his characteristic Ben-Day dotted style, as the exhibition attempts to expose Lichtenstein as a true formalist master.

The New York-born and educated artist only developed the snarky, print advertising- and comics-inspired body of work for which he is best known in the early 1960s, with the iconic turning point piece “Look Mickey” (1961). He was preoccupied with the tenets of Cubism and Abstract Expressionism in the early years of his career, but while teaching at Douglass College in the 1950s he embraced cartoons as a technical and conceptual challenge, responding to the confines of new trends that sought to break traditional composition. Following the influence of contemporaries like Allan Kaprow, Jim Dine, and Claes Oldenburg, he moved away from figurative styles and into representational work about everyday life. Advertising and cartoons served as a springboard for subject matter, but only propelled him to look backwards, to predecessors like Claude Monet’s “Haystacks,” Henri Matisse’s “The Dance,” and scenes from Chinese landscapes – whose imagery he appropriated using his mechanized and highly organized method of painting.

Lichtenstein’s primary concern was the two-dimensional image, and its preservation through proper composition. He never abandoned his commitment to technique, and while his work gives the illusion of being created on a printing press, his own hand was never absent from the work. The spotty style itself was intentionally meant to serve as a bridge between the high- and low-brow realms he straddled.

The Art Institute of Chicago is the first of only two American institutions that will house the exhibition — next it will travel to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the Tate Modern in London, and Paris's Centre Pompidou. While his work has been absorbed into popular culture, inspiring countless imitations from t-shirts to street art murals, and consistently achieves high prices at the auction block, the Art Institute of Chicago summed up Lichtenstein’s life work best in the exhibition's press release, where he's described as an artist who “systematically dismantled the history of modern art while becoming a fixture in that canon.”

To see more works from "Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective," click the slide show.