Pop Art Master

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Byline: Barbara Vitello bvitello@dailyherald.com

It takes a rather exceptional artist to perceive the potential in a trash can, a transistor radio or a pair of Keds high-tops.

, the celebrated 20th century artist who in the early 1960s helped ignite the pop art movement, was that rather exceptional artist.

Although at the time, not everyone agreed.

"He was kind of a 'succs de scandale,'" said James Rondeau, co-curator of the first Lichtenstein career survey since his 1997 death from pneumonia.

The exhibition, organized by London's Tate Modern and the , premieres Tuesday, May 22.

The establishment press criticized him initially, said Rondeau, the Art Institute's Dittmer curator in its Department of Contemporary Art. Yet his early shows sold out.

"There were people eager to recognize and be part of something that felt radically new," Rondeau said, adding that once that "shock of the new" wore off, the art establishment recognized the formally trained Lichtenstein for the extraordinarily accomplished painter he was.

That said, for all its sophistication, is absolutely accessible.

"He's a history painter of our time," Rondeau said.

Born in New York in 1923, Lichtenstein studied art at Ohio State University. He left in 1943 to join the Army, and returned two years later to complete his degree. He subsequently taught at the university's school of fine and applied arts and later at the State University of New York.

Among the artist's most notable contributions, says Rondeau, was bridging the gap between the realm of pop culture and mass production and the realm of fine art, "two areas of cultural life previously thought to be absolutely distinct."

"This is the central tenet of pop art, and Roy was its most loyal architect," Rondeau said.

The marriage of popular culture and fine art is evident in many of the more than 130 Lichtenstein paintings, sculptures, drawings and collages making up the retrospective, which are inspired by comic book panels, advertising, children's book illustrations (one of which influenced 1961's "Look Mickey," considered the artist's first pop painting) and even masterworks by Monet, Mondrian and Picasso, which Lichtenstein affectionately "appropriated" or parodied, as in 1969's "Haystack."

His "finished paintings are extraordinarily well made" Rondeau said.

For example, the early pop paintings, which include "Hot Dog and Mustard" along with the works in black and white from the mid 1960s, appear to be mass produced. …