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"What really comes out in this exhibition is Roy's sense of humor," explains Jay Dandy, former president of the Society for Contemporary Art and researcher for the Art Institute's new Lichtenstein retrospective. "I didn't really think of him as being slapstick, but he must’ve been really witty with a sly sense of humor. An excellent example of Roy’s humor is his Mirror series. He painted mirrors that reflect nothing. There’s a lot of irony in that."
Dandy is a pop art acolyte and friend of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation. He’s spent years studying Lichtenstein’s work and collecting pop art ephemera. A few years ago, when curator James Rondeau first asked Dandy to help with the exhibit, the intention was to have a show that focused on Lichtenstein’s more obscure work. But the project kept growing in size and eventually became a massive reevaluation of Lichtenstein’s work.
Though it's the largest Lichtenstein retrospective to date, most of the 170 pieces in "Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective" are not from his 1960s comics phase. Among the work that surprised Dandy was Lichtenstein's 1960 painting Washing Machine, an appropriated image from a laundry detergent advertisement that depicts a woman pouring detergent into water swirling inside a washing machine. "Washing Machine has a really surprising graphic quality," Dandy says. "The way he's represented the agitation of the water has a real sense of movement to it. I think that's something Roy was interested in: how to represent movement in a graphic sensibility." Standing before Lichtenstein's enormous canvas also reveals the optical effect of his work. Like the water in Washing Machine, Lichtenstein's dot technique really has a sense of movement, a quality that's lost in reproductions.
In my review of "Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective," I wrote that Lichtenstein's work still feels relevant thanks to the enduring popularity of comics. He also taps a cultural nostalgia that's finding expression these days in shows like Mad Men. Lichtenstein was fascinated by advertisement's glorification of the everyday object. "I think viewing Roy’s earlier imagery is helped by a show like Mad Men because it focuses on the everyday," Dandy says. "Roy viewed the everyday—or the representation of it—as art."
"Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective" is an important exhibition because it shows Lichtenstein as much more than a comics artist. "It will be nice for people to see Roy's art historical references and how he riffs on different artists," says Dandy. "Roy was still interested in investigating up until the end."