Roy Lichtenstein's Drowning Girl, 1963. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.


NEW YORK - One of the biggest museum blockbuster shows of the year is of a seminal artist who changed the course of art history by helping to invent Pop art as we know it, turning commonplace images into paintings worthy of study for the ages.

And no, I’m not talking about Andy Warhol this time, though you could say much the same of him. Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective which opened October 14 at the National Gallery of Art and this is the mega-show that fans of his work have been waiting nearly two decades for; the last major exhibition of his work was at the Guggenheim in 1993. This brand-new effort opened in April at the Art Institute of Chicago and was co-organized by the chief contemporary curator there, James Rondeau.


Roy Lichtenstein's Sunrise, 1965. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.


I do find it interesting that these two late Pop masters are both getting big shows this year. Harry Cooper, the coordinating curator of the Lichtenstein show for the National Gallery, told me over the summer that the two artists are “very close, but so different in tone and outlook.” Certainly both pioneered the low art-high art appropriation – and the erasing of the line between the two – that made Pop new, and both had a deft touch with humor and irony. But Warhol’s tone was indeed several shades darker. (There’s a book in here somewhere for the right critic.)

Roy Lichtenstein's Nudes with Beach Ball, 1994. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

Meantime, the rest of us can savor the 150 or so works in Washington D.C., including “Look Mickey,” 1961. “That’s our great painting that Roy and Dorothy gave us in the 1990s for our 50th anniversary,” says Cooper, referring to the painter and his wife, who still manages his legacy and estate. “He really considered it his first painting.” The super-collectors Robert and Jane Meyerhoff also get kudos for providing works that will be on view; they have given four Lichtensteins to the National Gallery already, and fifteen more are promised.

As far as I can see, the only lingering question about this exhibition now is: Why isn’t this show coming to New York? It heads to London’s Tate Modern next, and then to the Pompidou in Paris. I’m surprised it isn’t making its way to MoMA, the Whitney, the Guggenheim or the Met. Lichtenstein spent most of his adult life and career in the Big Apple, and those powerful institutions all own his works. But that mystery won’t stop me from checking out the show in D.C. as soon as I’m able.