Running along two walls is a floor-to-ceiling easel system designed to drip excess paint from the canvas onto the floor. Wooden shelves still hold mason glass jars full of Roy Lichtenstein’s old paint, their colors range from scarlet to mustard to periwinkle. It was here that the ponytail pop master worked on the reflection series, the interior series, sculptural interpretations of his 1960s brushstroke series and “Chinese Style Landscapes.”
This is a studio space where Lichtenstein – long established then, after the height of his fame in the 1960s – practiced his art between 1988 and his death in 1997. At the time, artists and writers such as Ellsworth Kelly, Julian Schnabel and Frederic Tuten would drop by. to visit. On Sundays, Lichtenstein would sometimes roll through the neighborhood with photographer Bob Adelman. Now it will house another line of artists, the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program (ISP), known for nurturing the next generation of artists.
The program has cultivated a community for a long line of distinguished artists, curators, art historians and writers – including LaToya Ruby Frazier, a visual artist and photographer; Madeleine Grynsztejn, the director of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art; and Naomi Beckwith, deputy director and chief curator of the Guggenheim Museum.
But it never had a permanent home of its own – until now.
Dorothy Lichtenstein, chairman of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, and Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum, announced Wednesday that the Lichtenstein family will donate the studio building to the museum. The aim is to move the program into the building in 2023, 100 years after Lichtenstein’s birth.
“I love the idea,” said Dorothy Lichtenstein, the artist’s wife, “that the studio Roy loved so much will continue to have meaning.”
The studio building itself, a 9,000-square-foot red brick behemoth, is located at 741/745 Washington Street, across the street from Westbeth Artists’ Housing and four blocks south of Whitney. Roy Lichtenstein bought the building—originally a metalworking shop—in 1987 and used it as his New York home and studio from 1989 to 1997.
The building has three levels: the studio on the ground floor, a large living area on the second floor and a one bedroom apartment on the third floor. After adaptation by the architectural firm Johnston Marklee, the first and second floors will be open to students of the Independent Study Program, while the third floor will house visiting artists and scientists in residence.
The studio space is white and cavernous. Occasionally Dorothy and Roy would get up in the morning and jog through the 60-by-80-foot main space. (“For our abilities,” Dorothy said, “it was more than adequate.”) The sun from two skylights soaks the varnished wood floors, and four cylindrical concrete pillars support two horizontal beams running the length of the room.
While working on the Gemini workshop in Los Angeles, the couple found balustrades from an old French theater in a junkyard, which they shipped back to New York. Those railings now frame the second-floor balcony—an L-shaped space, which also contains cabinets that once belonged to jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman’s Connecticut home. There is a stone fireplace that the Lichtensteins owned when they moved in.
“I imagine that room is a place where people in the Independent Studies Program, artists, people who will become curators, historians,” Dorothy Lichtenstein said, “can come together and socialize and meet.”
Many current and former students, Weinberg, the museum’s director pointed out — including Grynsztejn, the visual artist Félix González-Torres, and the interdisciplinary artist Danielle Dean — have international backgrounds, and a permanent home for the program would provide a sense of stability. can offer, too. They will have a place to “eat and talk at mealtimes, they can stay up all night,” Weinberg said.
Common living space would not have been possible if the Whitney had moved the program to the museum itself, one of the options considered. Founded in 1968, the program lives up to its name because artists work independently, but also because it remains independent of the institution.
“It serves as a kind of conscience for the Whitney Museum,” Weinberg said. “It’s the one who always engages in speculative thinking, critical thinking, challenging status quos, taking risks. And it really is a breeding ground for the arts field.”
At one point, 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 donated more than 400 works by the gentle artist to the Whitney, including paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, and photographs.
In 2018, the foundation and the museum collaborated to create the Roy Lichtenstein Study Collection for the exhibition, conservation and study of his work. The dozens of Whitney exhibits where his pieces have most recently featured include “Order and Ornament: Roy Lichtenstein’s Entablatures” in 2019-20.
“It was a pregnancy process,” Weinberg said. “I think good collaborations come about gradually and organically. He was very present, so this was a long and beautiful courtship.”