Roy Lichtenstein was one of the most influential and innovative American painters of the second-half of the 20th century, gaining prominence alongside fellow pop artists Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and James Rosenquist. His most popular paintings were based on imagery from comic strips and advertisements and rendered in a signature style mimicking the crude printing processes of newspaper reproduction.
One of these works, “Masterpiece,” sold for $165 million in 2017.
This was a far cry from the early 1950s, when the young artist – the grandson of German-Jewish immigrants – was struggling to find acceptance as a painter in Cleveland, which he called home for six years after earning his Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Fine Arts degrees from The Ohio State University in Columbus.
The television documentary, “Isabel & Roy” – which was written and edited by ideastream senior arts reporter David C. Barnett and senior producer Mary Fecteau, respectively – focuses on those Cleveland years. And as the billing in the title suggests, significantly more time and attention is devoted to the artist’s first wife, Isabel Lichtenstein, than the artist.
Though Roy’s art and the New York City art scene in which he journeyed during in the 1960s and 1970s are arguably more intriguing subject matter, this documentary makes it clear that Roy himself was not. He is described as “reserved,” “quiet” and working relatively uninteresting jobs – giving art lessons, serving as an engineering draftsman for Republic Steel, and designing store windows for the Halle Brothers department store at Shaker Square in Cleveland – prior to fame. Isabel, a prominent interior decorator who rose from the small town of Haviland, Ohio, is described as “flamboyant,” “entrepreneurial” and “rebellious.” And her life ended early and tragically.
As a news release promoting the documentary suggests, “Roy Lichtenstein’s impact on the art world is well documented, but the story of … the woman who supported him as he developed his signature style, is largely unknown.” Fair enough.
But there is just not much of a story here, unlike the one found in the life of Camille Monet, the wife of 19th-century impressionist Claude Monet. She and the wives of Paul Cézanne and Auguste Rodin are explored in Ruth Butler’s 2006 book, “Hidden in the Shadow of the Master” because they were muses and mysterious models frozen in time in the masterworks of these brilliant artists. There is something to be said about coaxing these women out of obscurity and exploring the life behind the impression they have made in those paintings. Isabel Lichtenstein seems a less significant subject.
Regarding the Cleveland connection that drives this documentary, it is certainly enticing. But the moral of the tale being told in this program is that Roy had to leave the city, and his wife, in order to develop into a famous artist. Not much of a home town takeaway.
The documentary is beautifully put together. It makes ample use of rarely seen archival photos as well as interviews with the Lichtensteins’ clients and family, including oldest son, Mitchell. But with so little to say and no other sources to help say it – no diary, no letters, no on-camera interviews with Roy or Isabel to dissect – Barnett and Fecteau rely too often on precision editing and continuous underscoring to keep things interesting. They routinely zoom in on lingering photos, which helps animate the storytelling but does not contribute to the story.
It is always great to see original, Cleveland-centric programming coming out of ideastream’s creative team. But “Isabel and Roy” is a bit of a stretch.