Roy Lichtenstein, holding up the modern pop art mantle

May 30, 2012

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"[Pop artists portray] what I think to be the most brazen and threatening characteristics of our culture, things we hate, but which are also so powerful in their impingement on us," Roy Lichtenstein told Arts News in 1963. This was a year before he'd paint "Sleeping Girl", which sold for $44.8 million earlier this year, a record for the most paid for a Lichtenstein work, work that was considered by some skeptics of his time merely reinterpretations of comic books, hardly considered an art form. 

But looking at Litchenstein's work today prompts a different reaction than it might have half a century ago. Now, Pop Art is merely status quo; then, his work and the work of contemporaries like Andy Warhol set the stage for the crossover between art, design and advertising that defines the modern creative world.

Such stage-setting inspired the Art Institute of Chicago, who opened a retrospective of Lichtenstein's work last week. It's the first show of his in nearly 20 years (the last was at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1993, when the artist was still "alive and well"), notes the curator of the new exhibit, James Rondeau. 

Rondeau knows Lichtenstein's work well -- he was an intern for that last show. Rondeau says the new exhibit is a sort of "greatest hits" look at the artist's work, one that can now include the final years of his work, as well as pieces that are “less familiar to us today and would have been less familiar in his lifetime."

"This is a dream project for me," says Rondeau, who notes that he became familiar with Lichenstein's work almost "by osmosis" the last time around, doing things like labeling and filing slides.

But much has changed even in two decades, and most certainly since Lichtenstein began painting. Today, the boundaries between areas of creative endeavors are very fluid -- artists can make all kinds of work, less limited by medium or even the label artist.

Chicago artist (and fan of Lichtenstein) Willy Chyr certainly thinks so. Chyr actually wouldn't even necessarily call himself an artist -- he used to call himself a balloon artist, because of his unique balloon installations -- but, in his words, "Artist is pegged into another category almost.” He perhaps perfers "creative."

But Chyr would describe those balloon pieces as pop art. The rest of his work, maybe less so: Chyr has crossed many boundaries in his short career. The twenty-something gained internet-fame by designing the first ad for feminine hygeine products ever to feature or make obvious reference to blood. He recently participated in the crowdsourced novel The Collabowriters, Lately, he's excited about being chosen as one of six artists to be featured on Beck's limited edition Art Bottles; this years batch includes a design by musician M.I.A, while previous years have featured work by Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst.

But Chyr sees the value of such a series as more than just advertising for a beer company. "It removes [art] from the institution context and it can just be part of your life -- walking your dog, taking a shower, drinking a beer, and here’s some art.”

“Not to say that there’s no intellectual thought behind it, but it’s a very accessible medium," he quickly adds.

That doesn't mean he necessarily wants to only work in advertising. By freelancing, "I get to do whatever I’m interested in and make it and hope that a company wants to latch on...if you’re at an agency you have to solve business problems for the client.” Chyr would rather just worry about the art part of it.

This colliding of high and low culture, this taking something that seemed artless, "was seen as a heresy" during Lichtenstein's time, says Rondeau -- but was also the very reason someone like Chyr can do what he does. That, and the rise of the internet of course.

“We take it absolutely for granted," Rondeau continues. "Contemporary culture today couldn’t exist without these overlapping intersections. It's almost like oxygen.”

Rondeau and Chyr talk more about Roy Lichtenstein and how modern artists are carrying on his legacy during Wednesday's Afternoon Shift. Roy Litchtenstein: A Retrospective is open at the Art Institute until September 3, when it moves on to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Tate Modern in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Keep track of Willy Chyr at his website or on Twitter.