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A Must-See Tribute To Pop-Art Hero Roy Lichtenstein

It’s okay if you don’t know who that is. Just come look at the pretty, funny pictures.

If they look like giant comic book panels, well, that’s only because they are. Roy Lichenstein was a postmodernist and pop artist, but rather than painting Marilyn Monroe or soup cans, he was obsessed with print, and most famously for supersized, reinterpreted comic book panels.

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Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective is a collection of over 160 works on display now at the Art Institute of Chicago, and soon it will make its way to the National Gallery of Art, Tate Modern, and Centre Pompidou.

Roy Lichtenstein, American (1923-1997). Wall Explosion II, 1965. Porcelain enamel on steel 170.2 x 188 cm x 10.2 cm (67 x 74 in)

But as soon as you walk into the exhibit, you realize that the prints you’ve seen do Lichtenstein’s work no justice. His comic book pieces, for instance, are like hyperbole distilled. Men are at (often phallic-fueled) WAR. Women, waiting for a lover to call, are on the brink of DEATH and DAMNATION. The canvases are massive, and the Ben-Day dots are pox-marked-overt across human faces. Yet somehow, his work sidesteps gaudiness to be visually balanced and striking, and ridiculously cognizant of color, all while subconsciously reminding you of cheap printing. The Magna paints–a precursor to modern acrylic–are both bright and flat at the same time. And the whites you see are actually merely, from what I could tell, bare canvas–not otherworldly white paint.

So you have what’s essentially a giant newspaper, with pulp-like highlights juxtaposed against blacks that are deep and flat enough to suck the glimmer from your eyes. Look closer, and amongst the immaculate Ben-Day gridding, you’ll spot the slightest of overlaps–what appear to be highly intentional small mistakes, ever so tacitly referencing the source media.

Roy Lichtenstein, American (1923-1997). Haystack, 1969. Oil on canvas. 45.7 x 61 cm (18 x 24 in). © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

Of course, Lichtenstein didn’t just riff on comic books; he parodied his fellow artists, too. The Wall Explosion series is his take on abstract expressionism (a nod to the brush work of artists like Pollock). That’s not just an explosion–it’s four wet brush strokes combining to make an explosion, as if Pollock is sitting there dripping paint randomly and BAMMMM!!!!!! (Lichtenstein claimed to mock only those he respected most, of course. But the way he reinterprets Monet’s Haystacks feels so much less like parody than homage, no?)

Regardless, it’s really a fantastic collection. And for anyone doubting the technical mastery behind the pop art movement, I’d urge you to explore Lichtenstein’s mirror series, in which he became obsessed at depicting mirrors sans-reflection. How could you possibly do that, you ask? Well, Lichtenstein asked the same question, over and over again. (And, more than once, succeeded in answering it.)

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day

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