Roy Lichtenstein was one of the most important figures of the pop art movement of the 1960s. Lichtenstein's clever paintings, drawings and sculpture based on comic-book images taught an art world used to the high seriousness of abstract-expressionism that art could also be fun.
So when the National Gallery of Art announced this month that the artist's family had donated more than a dozen of his drawings to the museum in memory of Jane Meyerhoff, the renowned Baltimore collector of postwar art who died last year, many people wondered when these rarely seen works would finally be put on public display.
Now that question has been answered by Roy Lichtenstein: A New Gift of Drawings, an exhibition that opens Saturday of all 13 drawings the Lichtenstein family donated to the museum.
Each of the drawings is directly related to one of Lichtenstein's paintings in the important collection of postwar art assembled by Meyerhoff and her husband, Robert. In 1987, the Meyerhoffs announced they would give their entire collection to the National Gallery.
All of Lichtenstein's work was inspired by popular culture, whose images and artifacts he gleefully appropriated in order to subvert. Like Warhol, whose soup cans and celebrity pictures also were inspired by popular culture, Lichtenstein kept a certain ironic distance between himself as the artist and the everyday objects he depicted.
That didn't mean Lichtenstein's art was unserious, however: Ultimately, his point was that the highly stylized version of reality in comic strips actually conceals, rather than reveals, the tragic character of human relationships. His images were an elegant shorthand for the depersonalization and alienation of modern society.
Yet there was nothing preachy or pretentious about Lichtenstein's art. It wasn't a joke, though he clearly intended his viewers to enjoy themselves while looking at the pictures. He showed that a contemporary painting didn't have to be abstract to be relevant, and that no matter how terrible the events of his age, art could still be fun.
The exhibition runs through July 24. The museum is on the National Mall at Seventh Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., in Washington. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. Admission is free. Call 202-737-4215 or visit www.nga.gov.
For more arts events, see Page 39.