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New Roy Lichtenstein retrospective explores social impact of Pop Art
Roy Lichtenstein, Bull III , from Bull Profile Series, 1973. Collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein / Gemini G.E.L.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- Renowned for his representations of everyday objects and his inventive interplay of line, dot, and color, Roy Lichtenstein (1923–1997) shaped the Pop Art movement. Organized by the Skirball Cultural Center, Pop for the People: Roy Lichtenstein in L.A. explores how the artist and the movementbuoyed by a renaissance in printmaking in Los Angelesmade fine art accessible to the American public in ways that had not been achieved before. By exploring the historical and cultural context of Lichtenstein’s life and work, the exhibition sheds light on the social impact of Pop Art, especially as it developed in Los Angeles.

On view at the Skirball October 7, 2016, through March 12, 2017, Pop for the People displays more than seventy Lichtenstein works spanning four decades. On view are the seminal and rarely exhibited Ten Dollar Bill (1956), one of Lichtenstein’s very first Pop Art pieces; as well as the iconic Sunri se (1965) and Shipboard Girl (1965), which he made when he was first gaining renown. A number of Lichtenstein’s famed comic book works, such as Whaam! (1963) and As I Opened Fire (1964), have been mounted alongside the actual comic books from which he appropriated and whose popular imagery he elevated to the realm of high art. By drawing inspiration from comic books as well as from advertising and children’s books, Lichtenstein invited viewers to recognize the world around them in his art.

In the early 1960s, fine art printmaking was on the verge of a technical and popular renaissance, and the locus of print experimentation shifted from France to America. The initial focus of this print revival was on lithography, and many master printers received training at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles, effectively making the city the epicenter of the movement. The prominent Los Angeles printing house Gemini G.E.L., which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year, was born out of this printmaking community. Over more than twenty-five years, Lichtenstein had a long and fruitful collaboration with the printing house, and Pop for the People features more than twenty Lichtenstein prints that resulted from it. These include examples from Lichtenstein’s Hays tack (1969), Bull Profile (1973), and Surrealist (1977) seriesin which he reconsiders the work of Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dalí, respectivelyas well as from his Interior (1991) series. Through these works, the exhibition highlights Lichtenstein’s longtime working relationship with Gemini cofounders Stanley Grinstein and Sidney Felsen, illustrating how they developed a new aesthetic, printed in new mediums, and began to produce and sell the works at a range of price points. This invited patronage by established collectors as well as everyday Americans, and helped to break down the aesthetic and economic barriers between the fine art world and the general public. In addition to the Gemini prints on view, several rarely or never-before-seen photographs show Lichtenstein at work in the Gemini studios and around Los Angeles with family, fellow artists, and his New York gallerist, Leo Castelli.

Pop for the People includes work, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, in which Lichtenstein responded to major national newsnamely the portrait Bobby Kennedy (1968) and the provocative Gun in America (1968). The former was commissioned by Time magazine while Kennedy was on the presidential campaign trail, and the latter after the candidate was gunned down in Los Angeles. Both graced the cover of Time , publicizing Lichtenstein’s signature graphic style to a very wide readership and sparking a conversation about gun control that continues to this day.

Additional works demonstrate the depth and breadth of Lichtenstein’s oeuvre, from rare prints to paper plates, clothing, and even turkey shopping bags. The exhibition shows how Lichtenstein’s aesthetic persists even today—in advertising, fashion, and merchandising.

Finally, visitors are able to walk through a three-dimensional reimagination of Lichtenstein’s 1992 painting Bedroom at Arles , based on a series by the same name by Vincent van Gogh. The installation urges visitors to not just look at the art, but to inhabit it, reinforcing the “what’s mine is yours” ethos of the Pop Art movement.

Pop for the People examines key periods in the artist’s life and career, introducing visitors to Lichtenstein as a New York boy descended from German Jewish immigrants, then as an art student at Parsons School of Design and Ohio State University. During his three years in the United States Army during World War II, Lichtenstein served alongside fellow American Jewish soldiers, among them several comic book illustrators, who introduced Lichtenstein to the art form. The work of one such comic book artist, Irv Novick, would later serve as direct inspiration for Lichtenstein’s Whaam!

Pop for the People follows Lichtenstein through a period of discovery when he began to paint in the intellectual, nonfigurative style of Abstract Expressionism, represented in the exhibition by the 1957 work Two Indians . Works like Ten Dollar Bill reveal his transition into the nascent niche of Pop Art, which transformed conceptions of fine art by appropriating images from daily life. Here Lichtenstein found his artistic voice. He took his new body of work to the famed New York gallerist Leo Castelli, who agreed to represent him in 1961. During the 1960s, Lichtenstein continued to draw inspiration from commonplace objects, consumer culture, and children’s books. Such popular imagery struck a chord: a larger swath of the general public could relate to Lichtenstein’s depictions of the world around them and could see their daily lives reflected in what was considered fine art.

This democratization of art was supported by Lichtenstein’s relationship with Gemini G.E.L. In addition to Lichtenstein, Gemini collaborated with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, among many others, making Gemini a formative player in shaping the Los Angeles art scene and establishing it as a global center for graphic experimentation. Lichtenstein issued his first serial prints with Gemini in 1969. During their twentyseven-year collaboration, Lichtenstein and Gemini produced 124 editions, offering a myriad of edition sizes at various prices. This availability and affordability represented a dramatic shift in the economy of fine art.

The exhibition concludes with Lichtenstein’s venture into political terrain in the 1960s through the 1980s, as seen in works such as Bobby Kennedy, Gun in America , and Mao (1971); and an examination of his unspecified prints, posters, and ephemera, such as Turkey Shopping Bag (1964), Paper Plates (1969), and Untitled Shirt (1979). These works shed light on the various modes and methods employed by Lichtenstein and the community of artists, gallerists, printers, and patrons who molded the Pop Art movement as a brand new fine art form—one that permeated American popular culture and aimed to give art to the people.

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