This Must Be Pop...

I feel like summer really got away from me this year. Perhaps this is what happens when you are a new homeowner -- not only are we fighting the nesting instinct to spend as much time in our new home, we are also too house poor to get get out and do much. Factor in the remote location of our new abode, and it's hardly surprising that we haven't exactly taken advantage of everything Chicago had to offer this summer.

We didn't make it to a single street festival, we went to zero movies in the park, we didn't dine al fresco at any of the city's ubiquitous restaurant patios, and I only went to one art festival and it wasn't even outdoors. Instead, our summer was spent learning how to grill and hosting so many cookouts that I actually can't even remember them all.

One thing I have been adamant about doing this summer is attending museums, mostly because warm weather will inevitably return to Chicago next year, but there is only one opportunity to see a temporary exhibit before it closes. Tonight, Justin and I finally made it to the Art Institute to see the Roy Lichtenstein retrospective that I've been eying all summer.

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the big, temporary exhibits put on by the Art Institute, from the audience-friendly Impressionist retrospectives of my youth, to last year's phenomenal, albeit challenging, exhibit on World War II-era Soviet propaganda posters. The only exception I can think of would be 2010's Matisse exhibit, and that's more due to my not being a fan of his work than any fault of the museum's. It's safe to say, however, that the Lichtenstein exhibit will go down in my memory banks as another one of the Art Institute's successes.

I went into the exhibit not knowing much about Lichtenstein, other than that he was an important figure in the Pop Art movement, and that his work drew from cartoons as source material. Not only did I learn a great deal about Lichtenstein's technique for creating the precise Ben-Day dots borrowed from the world of printing (he, or a member of his staff painted through a screen), but I learned that there were layers of complexity to his work that I never would have anticipated.

For his paintings that borrow from the language of the pulp comic books of the 1950s and 60s, Lichtenstein did not simply copy images outright, as I had thought. My assumption had always been that Lichtenstein appropriated the images from comic books, blowing  them up to an epic scale, and thereby turning objects of "low culture" into art, or "high culture," not unlike Marcel Duchamp's embrace of "readymades" as a part of Dadaism. However, while Lichtenstein drew inspiration from comic books, he would often change the composition of the images he drew from, emphasizing certain elements to enhance the message that he was trying to convey.

Since Lictenstein's comic book-inspired pieces are perhaps his best known, and are most represented in museums and galleries, I was surprised to discover that he explored a much larger variety of themes in his work. He was particularly drawn to the subject of art itself, and art history in particular. In the image depicted above, Lichtenstein poked fun at the Abstract Expressionist movement, the predominant style of painting when Lichtenstein was beginning his career. Here, he turns the splatters and energetic daubs of paint that were meant to capture the emotions and individuality of the artist under Abstract Expressionism, and turns them into something mechanical and easily reproduced.

Lichtenstein was also fond of giving his unique spin on the work of other artists. In this series, Lichtenstein reproduces Claude Monet's famous "Rouen Cathedral" series. Monet painted some thirty images of the facade of this cathedral in order to capture the effects of different types of light at different times of day, throughout the course of the year. Lichtenstein took things one step further, by employing different printing techniques to render the same image. 

The Lichtenstein retrospective not only taught me a great deal about the artist's work and gave me a greater appreciation for his creative genius, it was fun. Part of the appeal of Pop Art is that it is easily accessible, and it has a sense of whimsy about it. It was easy to breeze through this exhibit, taking in the information and enjoying the artwork. Although I generally disagree with the concept that all museum exhibits need to be constructed as a form of "edutainment," I felt that the Lichtenstein exhibit blended the two seamlessly enough to be truly memorable.

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