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30 years in the making: Lichtenstein's monumental "Five Brushstrokes"



It took over 30 years for Roy Lichtenstein's monumental “Five Brushstrokes” sculpture to make it from the drawing board to the Indianapolis Museum of Art's front lawn, where it will be officially unveiled Friday as part of an afternoon-long “block party.”

Abandoned in the '80s because the organization that commissioned it deemed it too expensive to build (one of its five elements is 40 feet tall), the piece was ultimately completed by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation in 2012, 15 years after the pop artist's death.

The foundation created two examples of the piece, holding on to one of them, which has yet to be assembled in its entirety. The other was installed over two days in late July on the lawn in front of the main museum building, where it now towers over Robert Indiana's iconic “LOVE” sculpture. Other installments in Lichtenstein's Brushstrokes series are held by the Getty Museum (Los Angeles), the Hirshhorn Museum (Washington, D.C.) and the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis).

Lichtenstein is perhaps better known for his vibrant comic book-inspired paintings than his sculpture. But viewers will note that "Five Brushstrokes" draws from the same palette of bright, primary colors as Lichtenstein's 2D work.

The story of how the piece came to have its world premiere at the IMA begins at the University of California, San Diego, which began installing contemporary sculpture on its campus in 1982. Lichtenstein was the first artist commissioned by the university, in partnership with the Stuart Foundation, to create a new, site-specific work.

“He did all the measurements and the drawings and the models, which we in the museum world call maquettes,” IMA Director and CEO Charles Venable says. “And then he photographed all those maquettes and decided what color they should be. Unfortunately, when they went to have them fabricated at the scale he wanted, it was so expensive that the foundation said, 'We actually can’t afford this.'”

IThe project was thus lost to history until Lichtenstein's widow, Dorothy — who will attend the dedication ceremony at the IMA — was able to secure funding to fabricate the piece. And then a bequest by the late Robert and Marjorie Mann to the IMA made it feasible for the museum to approach the Lichtenstein Foundation with a proposal to add the sculpture to its collection.

The museum considered several sites for the piece. “And then at the end we decided that the very best place to do it that was technically feasible would be on the lawn of the mall right in front of the main building," says Venable. "Most people don’t realize it, but the mall is actually the second largest green roof in Indiana. The whole mall is on top of our parking garage. So it’s kind of cool that it’s an ecologically very green place. But when you’re putting works of art that weigh several tons on it, on top of a garage, you have to have engineering studies to make sure that our garage can carry the load.”

While the IMA’s long association with Robert Indiana has led to several indoor exhibitions, Venable says that no Lichtenstein retrospective is planned, though it's something the museum would “love to do someday.” For now, Venable notes, “Going after a major sculpture by him ... really addresses the imbalance that we used to have in our Pop art collection.”


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