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NEW YORK — Dorothy Lichtenstein greets a visitor in the West Village studio of her late husband, the Pop artist, Roy. Now home to a foundation she established in 1999 to promote his art, the space in a former electrical factory is a vast expanse of white walls and polished wood floors with famous Benday Dot paintings and mirror sculptures bathing in sunlight streaming in through the ceiling windows.
In her sixth decade, Lichtenstein is a beautiful woman, with long blonde hair and better legs than many women half her age. It’s easy to see why she caused a stir when she landed at the now-defunct Bianchini Gallery in the early Sixties, fresh out of college with a degree in art history.
“There were several beauties in the galleries in those days and she was one of the noteworthy ones,” says Frederic Tuten, a friend who wrote many catalog essays on the artist’s work. “Roy was very happy because he knew he had a lot of competition. Artists of his generation and younger were interested in her. She was funny and warm and brilliant and involved.”
Lichtenstein is still involved. Ever the activist, she energetically discusses women’s reproductive rights and gay rights, two causes she’s championed for years. “When I was younger it seemed impossible to think that Roe v. Wade would ever be threatened,” she says, sitting on a green velvet couch in the studio. “Now more than ever there seems to be a move to devolve personal freedoms.”
Lichtenstein doesn’t just talk a good game. When the artist April Gornik called to ask Lichtenstein if she’d host a benefit for Planned Parenthood of Hudson Peconic at her Gin Lane home in Southampton, her response was “enthusiastic, generous and immediate,” says Gornik. Lichtenstein even offered to donate four of Roy’s prints for a live auction. The event is Saturday at 5:30 p.m.
As if one benefit weren’t enough, Lichtenstein will host a fund-raiser for LAMBDA, the national gay rights organization, on Aug. 2.
“The two groups are very similar,” she says. “They both deal with people’s right to decide what to do with their own bodies. One of my sons is gay and I’m glad to say he was able to grow up in the artist’s community, which isn’t judgmental.”
Dorothy met Roy when she organized an exhibition called “The Great American Supermarket” at Bianchini. It was a Pop Art show-cum-event with contributions from Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist and Robert Watts. “We thought it would be wonderful if we could get Roy and Andy to do an image for a shopping bag to go with our theme and they agreed,” she recalls. “Roy was instantly charming and fun to be with.”
By all accounts, the two had an idyllic marriage. After moving to Long Island in the Seventies, Roy painted diligently from 10 to 6, seven days a week, breaking for lunch with Dorothy. “Theirs was one of the great devotional loves that you really envy,” says Tuten. “It was a model for behavior. Dorothy knew a lot about painting and she really loved his work.”
She’s still promoting her husband’s legacy. One of the foundation’s missions is educating the public about the range of the artist’s work, which goes beyond the well-known cartoons to encompass abstract and conceptual art. “Many artists get pigeonholed if they have any public presence or media flair,” she says.
By all accounts, Lichtenstein is one of the more beloved figures in the art world, which is saying a lot for a community that can be openly cut-throat and competitive. The artist David Salle tries to sum up her many qualities. “She has a finely tuned sense of the absurd and an appreciation for the human condition,” he says. “She also has the ability to be righteously indignant with a fine moral sense. It’s not so simple to define her, there’s not only one thing.
“She’s so great,” he concludes, “it’s hard to find words to encapsulate the Dorothy Lichtenstein effect.”