One of my favorite things about working at the front desk of WAM over the summer was seeing first time visitors’ jaws drop and then form into a smile when greeted by Roy Lichtenstein’s enormous “World’s Fair Mural.” Impossible to miss, this giant mural is proudly displayed above the front desk of the building. In the dark night, when the interior is lit, you can see her radiant and glowing smile all the way from the Northrop Auditorium. From far away, I like to imagine that she is a giant human living inside of the building and the front door is her window frame.
This piece wasn’t always displayed with such prominence. Before the current building was designed by Frank Gehry in 1993, the collection was held in a much smaller space in Northrop. “World’s Fair Mural” was acquired by the University after the World’s Fair in 1964, but the piece was too big to be displayed properly in the Northrop space. The curators once positioned the mural on the floor, allowing onlookers to view it from stories above.
Artist Roy Lichtenstein was known for appropriating comic book imagery. He would cut out single frames of illustrations that caught his eye and feed them like a negative slide into his projector. Projecting giant images onto canvases, Lichtenstein would replicate the comic at a huge scale with unique alterations. Sometimes he would change the composition completely, other times he would simply modify the expression in the speech bubble.
In the case of “World’s Fair Mural,” Roy appropriated imagery from comic artist Hy Eisman. In the original composition, speech from an out of frame commenter states “… MISS KIM GARLAND! A REAL LADY”. Lichtenstein drastically altered the original work, by removing the caption, adding the window frame, changing her dress and hair color, and discarding the original scene where she appears to be sitting at a diner with a drink. The surviving trait of the piece is her brilliant and radiant expression that exudes a contagious joy and happiness. I like to imagine Lichtenstein flipping through old comics looking for an image that grabbed him, and couldn’t help but smile, just like the visitors at WAM, when he saw the girl in the “World’s Fair Mural.”
Caleb Vanden Boom is a third year student from Madison, WI in the Graphic Design program at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design. He also interns at WAM as a communications and marketing intern and at local design firm Less Co.