Famous for his dots and cartoons, Roy Lichtenstein leapt to the forefront of pop art, but his career covered a broad range of subjects and styles, including the occasional nod to politics and history.
The first retrospective of Lichtenstein's career since his death in 1997 is at the National Gallery of Art, which holds one of the largest collections of the artist's work. The show debuted in Chicago and will travel on to London and Paris next year.
It includes Lichtenstein's take on two famous pictures of George Washington and his use of the signs and symbols of power and war. The gallery has hung his print of the Oval Office as the show opens during election season.
Lichtenstein followed politics and made some images for political groups, but he didn't preach, said Jack Cowart, executive director of the Lichtenstein Foundation. In 1992, he was asked to create a poster for the Democratic National Committee and mixed imagery from the Nixon and Kennedy eras to create the scene. It eventually became a large-scale painting.
"He really was very much interested in the role of art," Cowart said. He believed that "if you make good art, it will make good sense, it will make good culture, and it will make for a good life."
Curators said Lichtenstein was much more than a painter of comics.
The exhibition follows his career from the 1950s, offering an extensive look at his various styles and interpretations. His first pop painting, Look Mickey, is a centerpiece with Lichtenstein's riff on Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck that helped change notions about art.
A walk through his career includes paintings of a hot dog, an engagement ring and his memorable 1960s cartoons about war and romance. More surprising are his landscapes made of small dots created with metal screens, cartoon-style nudes, a series focused on brushstrokes, and reinterpretations of works by Picasso, Cézanne and other artists.
"I think it's Roy for a new generation," said Harry Cooper, the gallery's curator of modern art, who wanted to also showcase Lichtenstein's technique. "People who might not be into art otherwise can relate to sort of mechanical engineering aspects of art. So that's a little different."
One rarely seen painting is Lichtenstein's 1951 Washington Crossing the Delaware. It's his impression of the 1851 history painting by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze and the absurd imagery of patriotism, curators said. The revolutionary scene is reduced to something like children's art.
Another piece, George Washington, is a painting made after a wood cut of a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington. The awkward image was far enough removed from Stuart's, in Lichtenstein's mind, that he could "make it a Lichtenstein, not a Gilbert Stuart," Cowart said.
Dorothy Lichtenstein, who previewed the exhibit, said the show reflects her late husband's humor and sense of irony, poking fun at "so-called great American historical moments."
"I think even the old audiences still think of Roy as just doing cartoons," she said. "There were three years really that he did that, and then there's a body of work that's so different."