Pop Star: Roy Lichtenstein at Skirball

By Laurie Rosenthal
Staff Writer

If there was a Mount Rushmore for Pop Art, Roy Lichtenstein would be one of the featured figures.

“Pop for the People: Roy Lichtenstein in L.A.” at the Skirball Cultural Center highlights the artist’s time in Los Angeles, most notably his collaboration with Gemini G.E.L., the renowned fine-arts publisher and workshop for artists.

Roy Lichtenstein, Sunrise, 1965. Below: Roy Lichtenstein, Thunderbolt, 1966. Collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

Roy Lichtenstein, Sunrise, 1965. Below: Roy Lichtenstein, Thunderbolt, 1966.
Collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

While some art can be intimidating and hard to grasp, Lichtenstein made art for the masses. “Roy Lichtenstein’s artwork leveled the playing field,” said exhibit curator Bethany Montagano at a recent press preview of the show.

“Roy’s work honed in so much about shared experience that connects us.” Those shared experiences included advertising, comic books, newspapers and similar items that were part of Americans’ daily life. “He elevated America’s passions to high art,” Montagano said.

In the beginning, art critics were not always kind to Lichtenstein, and according to Montagano, he was called “small-minded and pin-headed,” while some even questioned “if he was the worst artist in America.” Reviewers likened his work to the “doodling of a five-year-old.”

oy Lichtenstein, Reverie, from the portfolio 11 Pop Artists, Volume II, 1965. Collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

Roy Lichtenstein, Reverie, from the portfolio 11 Pop Artists,
Volume II, 1965. Collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

It’s easy to spot a Lichtenstein: they all burst with color, and usually have a touch—or more—of whimsy. Vivid colors, stripes and, most notably, the Ben-Day dots that he is known for all contribute to making rich, detailed images.

Illustrating how Lichtenstein was equally talented in woodcuts, painting, etching, silk screening, sculpture and lithography, “Pop for the People” includes his designs on paper plates, Rosenthal china and clothing.

At the preview, one word that was repeatedly used by different people associated with the Skirball and Gemini to describe Lichtenstein’s body of work was “accessible,” meaning it’s for everyone—children, adults, art aficionados and art scholars as well as those who don’t know anything about what constitutes good art.

Of all Lichtenstein’s work, his comic-book art is probably what most people will recognize, and it is exhibited along with the original sources of inspiration, which includes Wonder Woman and space-age travel comics.

Ellen Grinstein, whose late father Stanley was one of the co-founders of Gemini G.E.L, told the Palisades News about when her children were toddlers.

23-Thunderbolt (1966)

“I took them to a Roy Lichtenstein show and they could relate to it. It was the first time they appreciated art.” Her son, Alex, walked into a room of Lichtensteins and said, “Oh, my favorite artist.”

Her sister, Ayn, said that Lichtenstein was a “nice, warm guy,” who, unlike most artists, basically kept a nine-to-five schedule.

“Roy was always experimenting with different things, whether it was woodcut, silkscreen, photography or wallpaper,” Ayn said.

The pièce de résistance of the exhibit is a three-dimensional, life-size version of Bedroom at Arles, Lichtenstein’s take on Vincent Van Gogh’s The Bedroom. It’s an ode to the master in Lichtenstein’s undeniable style, and is “accessible” on steroids. Viewers are invited

to sit on the soft bed, touch Van Gogh’s hat or just stand back and look at the Van Gogh portrait that features the ubiquitous Ben-Day dots.

Lichtenstein, who died in 1997 at the age of 73, was influenced by many artists, and the exhibit also features homages to Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet and Salvador Dali. “He was doing this to challenge his generation’s notions of what fine art was, and in doing so he was able to democratize it, give it back to people, make it accessible, digestible, and take it away from the provenance of the very elite,” Montagano said.

Roy Lichtenstein, Wallpaper with Blue Floor Interior, 1992.

Roy Lichtenstein, Wallpaper with Blue Floor Interior, 1992.

His “Gun in America” series is as relevant today as it was when it was created in the late 1960s, around the time of the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Included in the exhibit is an original Time magazine with Kennedy on the cover dated May 24, 1968, a time between his and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassinations.

The original hangs on the wall next to “mechanicals” of a hand holding a pistol, which was another Time cover the following month. Both the Kennedy and gun covers are done in Lichtenstein’s signature cartoon style, and feature red Ben-Day dots and bright yellow. The pistol almost seems harmless compared to some modern weapons.

The covers also show that Lichtenstein tackled serious political issues of the day. According to Montagano, the gun cover was “one of the most controversial issues” Time had done, and was the “first time that America had a public conversation” about the rights of people to have guns, an issue now discussed almost daily in the news.

Roy Lichtenstein, Nude on Beach, from the Surrealist Series, 1978. Collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein / Gemini G.E.L.

Roy Lichtenstein, Nude on Beach, from the Surrealist Series, 1978. Collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation.
© Estate of Roy Lichtenstein / Gemini G.E.L.

Suzanne Felsen, whose dad Sidney co-founded Gemini (and who still works there), was thrilled with what she saw at the Skirball. Felsen, along with both Grinstein sisters, works at Gemini.

“It’s fine art meets the fun house in a way,” Felsen said. “They did such a good job to make fine art become accessible. I’ve never seen anything like it, actually.”

Lichtenstein’s idea for Wallpaper with Blue Floor Interior was for it to truly be used as wallpaper, and people in Los Angeles enthusiastically bought it and hung it on their walls. There are still some homes in L.A. that have the wallpaper. It typifies “the democratization of art that Roy Lichtenstein accomplished,” Montagano said.

The Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation loaned most of the pieces on view. The foundation also provided funding, which will partially go to ensure that students from nearly 500 local schools will have the opportunity to see the exhibit.

“Since time immemorial, artists were always the chroniclers of our time,” Schnitzer told the gathered journalists. He pointed out how appropriate it was for this exhibit to be at the Skirball, where in the next hall antiquities were made by “artists then who were pushing the envelope and telling us about those times.”

Roy Lichtenstein, Modern Art II, 1996. Collection of Gemini G.E.L. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein / Gemini G.E.L.

Roy Lichtenstein, Modern Art II, 1996. Collection of Gemini G.E.L. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein / Gemini G.E.L.

He calls Lichtenstein’s work “just as fresh today” as when the artist first created it.

Joni Weyl is married to Sidney Felsen and also works at Gemini. She gave some insight into Lichtenstein’s life in L.A. He would inform Gemini a year in advance of when he would be coming out from New York to work. Along with his wife, Dorothy, he enjoyed being part of the Hollywood crowd, as well as arts and culinary happenings.

Weyl spoke about Lichtenstein’s strong work ethic, how he would spend weeks hand-carving huge wood blocks and how, in 1978, he decided to learn how to draw on limestone. “His early work was sort of anti-hand. His late work was very much about the hand,” she said.

A fun, local story was that of Irving “Swifty” Lazar’s famed Spago Oscar party, and how everyone wanted to be around Lichtenstein.

“Kathleen Turner had studied art in college,” and when she heard Lichtenstein was at the party, “She bumped Dorothy off the couch and talked the entire night,” Weyl said.

“It was an honor and privilege for my partners and I to know Roy and to witness his visual curiosity.”

“Pop for the People” is on view through March 12, 2017. For more information, go to skirball.org.

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