Whaam! Lichtenstein retrospective opens in Chicago

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The colorful, comic dots of Pop art icon Roy Lichtenstein burst off the walls at the first retrospective since his death in 1997.

Scenes of war and romance lifted from comics and recast onto massive canvases lead seamlessly into his more abstract explosions and brushstrokes, his reworking of classics like Monet's Haystacks, and the luminous Chinese landscapes Lichtenstein painted near the end of his life.

More than 160 works -- including never-before-seen sculptures, drawings and paintings from private collections -- are bunched in a major exhibit that opens in Chicago on Tuesday before heading to Washington, London and Paris.

"Lichtenstein is rightly recognized for being a foundational Pop artist who created some of the most iconic works of the 20th century," said co-curator James Rondeau of the Art Institute of Chicago.

"Our aim with this exhibition is to explore the full range of absorbing contradictions at the heart of Lichtenstein's work -- starting with the paradox that Lichtenstein systematically dismantled the history of modern art while becoming a fixture in that canon."

Born in New York in 1923, Lichtenstein began painting seriously after his service in World War II.

But he did not find fame until he abandoned cubist and abstract styles and challenged the art world with his 'artless' cartoons beginning in 1961.

Lichtenstein's "Look Mickey" -- which opens the exhibit -- is considered to be the first Pop art painting.

Its simplistic subject -- an illustration from a book he read to his sons of Donald Duck hooking a fishing line on his shirt while Mickey covers his laughing mouth -- was seen as heretical, pedestrian or banal.

"It was an incredibly radical gesture," co-curator Sheena Wagstaff of London's Tate Modern told AFP.

"When he came up with these images, he was fairly derided, as many artists have been in the avant garde. Nobody really understood what he was doing."

Hand-painted Ben-Day dots which mimicked commercial printing processes became Lichtenstein's signature as he blurred the lines between 'low' and 'high' art.

By embracing and elevating the commonplace, Lichtenstein and other Pop artists like Andy Warhol helped redefine art and beauty at a time of major social and cultural upheaval.

His comic book panels of damsels in distress and blonde heroines of domesticity came at a time when feminists were challenging traditional gender roles.

His dramatic depictions of daring war heroes captured sentimental and idealized ideas of masculinity at the height of the Cold War.

The cheerful, tongue-in-cheek playfulness of his work has also contributed to Lichtenstein's lasting popularity -- as has his capacity to capture a moment of intensely engaging narrative.

"It's part of a story and I'm taking a part out, which implies that something happened before and after, and you don't know what it is," Lichtenstein once said.

"I pick them to be disturbing in that way, or humorous in that way or evocative in some way."

The aim of the exhibit is to help artists and the general public understand Lichtenstein's work in a fresh and new way "rather than as a historical figure locked into 1964 when it was high pop art," said Jack Cowart, director of the Lichtenstein Foundation.

"We hope it will be a 'Wow! I never knew he did that kind of thing,' or that they are so big or that they are so exciting or that they are visually so strong and what was this guy thinking kind of thought," Cowart said.

The exhibit runs through September 3 at the Art Institute of Chicago.

It will then travel to the National Galley of Art in Washington from October 14 until January 13, 2013. It opens at London's Tate Modern on February 21, 2013 and runs through May 27, 2013. The retrospective will appear at the Centre Pompidou in Paris from July 3 to November 4, 2013.

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