Appropriated from a book he enjoyed reading to his kids, Roy Lichtenstein’s 1961 painting Look Mickey shows Mickey Mouse stifling a laugh as Donald Duck pulls on a fishing line stuck through his own shirt and says, “Look Mickey, I’ve hooked a big one!!” Like Andy Warhol‘s first soup cans, the piece was a shot across the bow of abstract expressionism, and it placed Lichtenstein squarely at the center of the pop art movement. It’s only right that he announced himself with a children’s cartoon, since much of his work is characterized by playfulness.
Look Mickey greets you near the start of the Art Institute’s enormous “Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective,” but you can also see Lichtenstein’s final works through the open entranceway. Curator James Rondeau has designed a fluid exhibition so that viewers can get a sense of the trajectory of Lichtenstein’s career. With nearly 170 pieces by the artist, who died in 1997, this is the largest Lichtenstein survey to date.
In today’s era of hipsterism, when cultural trends tend to fall somewhere between nostalgia and irony, Lichtenstein’s work still feels sharp. He criticized consumer culture even as he celebrated Americana, doing both with humor and wit. “Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective” brilliantly conveys his awareness of art history and sophisticated exploration of multiple forms. While Lichtenstein is best known for comics-inspired paintings like Drowning Girl (“I don’t care! I’d rather sink—than call Brad for help!”), his later works illuminate the depth of his technique. In the last years of his life he deployed his dot technique to capture the subtlety of traditional Chinese landscapes. More than any others, these paintings evoke his lifelong effort to broaden his craft and internalize the graphic universe he loved.