Roy Lichtenstein’s studio becomes home to an artistic community

Along two walls runs a floor-to-ceiling easel system designed to drip off any excess paint away from the web, On the floor. Wooden shelves still hold glass Mason jars filled with Roy Lichtenstein’s old paintings, their colors ranging from scarlet to mustard to periwinkle. This is where the ponytailed pop master worked on the series of reflectionsthe interior seriessculptural interpretations of his 1960s series of brush strokes and “Chinese landscapes.”

This is a studio where Lichtenstein – then well established, after the height of his fame in the 1960s – practiced his art between 1988 until his death in 1997. At the time, artists and writers like Ellsworth Kelly, Julian Schnabel and Frederic Tuten would come visit. On Sundays, Lichtenstein sometimes rollerbladed around the neighborhood with photographer Bob Adelman. Now it will house another set of artists, the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program (ISP), known for nurturing the next generation of artists.

The program has fostered a community for a long line of distinguished artists, curators, art historians and writers – among them, LaToya Ruby Fraziervisual artist and photographer; Madeleine Grynsztejn, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago; and Naomi Beckwith, Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the Guggenheim Museum.

But he never had his own permanent residence – until now.

Dorothy Lichtenstein, president of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, and Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum, announced Wednesday that the Lichtenstein family will donate the studio to the museum. The goal is to move the program into the building in 2023, 100 years after Lichtenstein was born.

“I love the idea,” said Dorothy Lichtenstein, the artist’s wife, “that the studio that Roy loved so much will continue to have meaning.”

The studio itself, a 9,000 square foot red brick behemoth, is at 741/745 Washington Street, across from Westbeth Artists’ Housing and four blocks south of the Whitney. Roy Lichtenstein bought the building – originally a metal shop – in 1987 and used it as his New York City residence and studio from 1989 to 1997.

The building has three levels: the studio on the ground floor, a large living space on the second floor and a one-bedroom apartment on the third floor. After adaptation by architectural firm Johnston Marklee, the first and second floors will be open to students in the independent study program, while the third floor will host visiting artists and scholars in residence.

The studio space is white and cavernous. Occasionally Dorothy and Roy would get up in the morning and run around the main 60ft by 80ft space. (“For our abilities,” Dorothy said, “that was more than enough.”) Sunlight from two skylights permeates the varnished wood floors, and four cylindrical concrete pillars support two horizontal beams spanning the length of the room.

While working in Los Angeles with the Gemini Workshop, the couple found balustrades from an old French theater in a junkyard, which they sent back to New York. Those railings now line the second-story balcony — an L-shaped space, which also includes cabinetry that once belonged to jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman’s home in Connecticut. There is a stone fireplace that the Lichtensteins had when they moved in.

“I imagine this room is a place where people in the independent studies program, artists, people who are going to be curators, historians,” Dorothy Lichtenstein said, could “get together and be comfortable and to meet”.

Many current and former students, pointed out Weinberg, the museum’s director – including Grynsztejn, visual artist Félix González-Torres and interdisciplinary artist Danielle Dean – come from international backgrounds, and a permanent home for the program could provide a sense of stability, too. They will have a place to “eat and talk during meals, they can stay up all night,” Weinberg said.

A common living space would not have been possible if the Whitney had moved the program into the museum itself, one of the options considered. The program, created in 1968, lives up to its name both because the artists work independently, but also because it maintains independence from the institution.

“It kind of serves as a conscience for the Whitney Museum,” Weinberg said. “He’s the one who always engages in speculative thinking, critical thinking, challenging the status quo, taking risks. And it’s really an incubator for the arts.

At one time, Lichtenstein himself led seminars for the program. The close relationship between the man and the museum dates back to 1965, when his work was included in both the 1965 annual exhibition and “A Decade of American Drawings, 1955-1965”. Since then, the Lichtenstein Foundation has given the Whitney more than 400 works by the soft-spoken artist, including paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures and photographs.

In 2018, the foundation and the museum partnered to create the Roy Lichtenstein Study Collection for the exhibition, conservation and study of his work. Whitney’s dozens of exhibitions that featured her most recent pieces included “Order and ornament: the entablatures of Roy Lichtenstein” in 2019-20.

“It was a gestation process,” Weinberg said. “I think good collaborations happen gradually and organically. He was very present, so it was a long and wonderful courtship.

Sam D. Gomez