Roy Lichtenstein’s widow Dorothy sits on the sunlit top floor of Tate Modern remembering the three decades she spent living with the pioneering pop artist.
Lichtenstein is in London to inaugurate a retrospective of his dotty canvases -- the cartoon strips, the household items, the tributes to Picasso and Matisse. She wears an orange turtleneck and ankle boots, her blond hair tied in a ponytail.
The couple met in 1964, when she was a New York gallery assistant and he a separated father of two. They married in 1968; he died in 1997.
For Lichtenstein, being at Tate without him is “bittersweet.” What pains her especially is “looking at one of the last works he did and realizing what there was still to be done by him.”
Dorothy heads the 14-year-old Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, which preserves and documents his legacy. She owns many works herself -- including several marked “private collection” in the show.
I ask what it was like living with a man whose art was “the opposite of macho.” The question arises because, moments earlier at Tate, I bump into the British artist Grayson Perry, who tells me how refreshing he finds Lichtenstein’s output compared to the “great big ejaculations” of his male contemporaries.
“I actually think that if one were to come and look at the images in his painting, he would come across as very macho,” replies Dorothy. Certainly, Tate’s “War and Romance” room -- full of cartoonish depictions of virile fighter pilots and teary blondes -- does put masculinity on parade.
“He himself was a bit on the reticent side,” she notes, “really serious about his artwork, dedicated to a certain amount of perfection, and really more involved in making the paintings than being a personality.”
“He didn’t think it was his job as an artist to put his own existential angst, which was limited, admittedly,” says Dorothy with a hint of sarcasm. “He was trying to remove the look of the artist’s hand from his work.”
He was happy toiling in the studio by day and going out at night. In New York, the couple’s favorite “haunt” was Florent (now closed), where they often went with the studio staff.
That routine “was also advantageous to me,” says Dorothy. “I loved to travel, so I got to take a couple of really adventurous trips to Africa. That was really fine with him.”
At home, Lichtenstein was a careful eater.
“I think he had a really visceral idea that eating clotted cream was going immediately to his arteries,” she recalls. Breakfast was fresh juice, raisin bran and coffee. Dorothy, even more of a health fiend, would serve up a macrobiotic diet.
Lichtenstein loved jazz -- Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Though he had no more than a few childhood clarinet lessons, “he had a natural talent for being able to listen to a piece of music and just kind of automatically replay it.”
When he turned 70, Dorothy bought him a saxophone.
“He took it very seriously,” she says. “He brought the same kind of attention to detail and discipline that he brought to his art.”
I ask what she thinks of his prices in the art market, where a 1964 Lichtenstein, “Sleeping Girl,” was auctioned for a record $44.9 million last May.
“Oh, I don’t think they’re expensive enough!” she jokes. “It’s not just art that is suffering from exorbitant prices: real estate, house rentals, automobiles … Art’s just one of the things in the mix that the world seems, or maybe one or two people in the world seem, to pay ridiculous prices for.”
The Lichtensteins in her collection must make her one very rich woman, I point out.
“Not the ones I still own,” she replies. “Roy did a lot of different work that just sells for a reasonable price.”
“Lichtenstein: A Retrospective,” sponsored by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, is at Tate Modern, London, through May 27, 2013. It then transfers to the Pompidou Center in Paris (July 3 - Nov. 4). The exhibition opened in 2012 at the Art Institute of Chicago. Information: http://www.tate.org.uk/modern.
(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)
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