With the 100th birthday of Roy Lichtenstein approaching on Oct. 27, can we please turn our attention to the meaning of the word “forever?” Art is long and life is short, the maxim goes, but now even the new Lichtenstein stamps issued by the U.S. Postal Service for the artist’s centennial come with the promise of “Forever.” Conversely, one of the artist’s best-known works, the jumbo-size “Bauhaus Stairway Mural: The Large Version,” has been removed from its supposedly permanent digs in Beverly Hills.

“Bauhaus Stairway Mural,” a marvelously witty and lucid painting that stands about 26 feet tall and 18 feet wide, was initially commissioned for the skylit atrium of the landmark I.M. Pei building that housed Creative Artists Agency. That was in 1989. The artist was then 66 years old and celebrated for a style of painting that derived a surprising charisma from the anonymity of dot-pattern commercial printing. He favored primary colors and blunt, industrial-strength outlines whose legibility was well-suited for the demands of mural-size art.

The mural is now making its first appearance in New York, at the West 24th Street outpost of the Gagosian Gallery. It was flown in as part of the observance of the artist’s centennial, which will culminate with a full-dress retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 2026. In the meantime, it is wonderful having the mural in Manhattan, although the current exhibition (up through Dec. 22) feels somewhat contextless and even mysterious. It does not include any preparatory sketches for the mural or archival photographs of its installation — and we do not learn why it left California.

For that I had to call around. I learned that the mural is owned by Michael Ovitz, the co-founder and former chairman of CAA and a leading collector of contemporary art. “A new tenant came in and they didn’t want it,” Ovitz said when we talked by phone, referring to the work that Lichtenstein painted in situ over a period of five weeks. The tenant, which arrived in 2021, is Alo Yoga, a company specializing in leggings, cropped tops and other clothing designed for what it calls “mindful movement.”

“I wasn’t happy about it,” Ovitz said, about having to put the mural in storage, “but there was nothing I could do.”

Why would a company choose to reject a work of art commissioned specifically for its building? When I posed the question to Alo, a spokesperson declined to comment.

The irony is that “Bauhaus Stairway Mural” might seem almost tailor-made for an activewear company. It shows four or five figures from the back, heading up a wide, industrial-style flight of stairs. Their bodies are well-toned and free of flab, and they are dressed in long-sleeved monochromatic tops that resemble the gender-neutral “athleisure” that has become a wardrobe staple.

Lichtenstein, a pioneer of postmodern recycling, swiped the subject of his mural from a beloved masterpiece of German painting — Oskar Schlemmer’s “Bauhaus Stairway,” of 1932, which is owned by the Museum of Modern Art. The painting depicts an actual staircase at the Bauhaus, the progressive art school that opened in Weimar, Germany, in 1919, and exemplified the modern movement at its most extroverted and techno-friendly. Artists claimed a bond with designers and engineers and set out to repair the world.

You can feel some of that energy in the Schlemmer painting, whose figures give off a zigzagging rhythm. The central figure, a brunette in an orange top, has jutting elbows and a V-shaped waist. She is a new kind of woman, an angular, androgynous emissary from the Bauhaus’ future-facing ranks.

In a nod to its subject matter, MoMA curators have traditionally hung the Schlemmer in a suitably bustling public stairwell. Museum visitors who walk rather than escalate up to the second floor are rewarded with the startling sight of a mirror image of their own movements.

And please note that the figures in the Schlemmer are walking up the staircase. Upward movement in art often hints at lofty belief, as in, say, Titian’s “Assumption of the Virgin” or Barnett Newman’s emphatically vertical “zips.” Downward motion, by contrast, can evoke Dada irreverence and, in particular, Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” the Cubist painting that created a brouhaha at the Armory Show of 1913 because neither a nude nor the alleged staircase could be located in its welter of tilting planes.

It is not surprising that Lichtenstein was drawn to Schlemmer, who rejected the hot, romantic ethos of 20th-century German Expressionism in much the same way that Lichtenstein rejected the emotive ethos of Abstract Expressionism a half-century later. A native New Yorker who grew up on the Upper West Side, Lichtenstein remains one of our most influential artists. A founder of the Pop Art movement of the 1960s, he earned his first fame with pristine, hyper-elegant paintings of comic-book blondes and their Ken-like boyfriends, a wholesome pantheon compared with his fellow Pop artist Andy Warhol’s vampiric portraits of celebrities.

One of Lichtenstein’s enduring themes was the absurdity of utopian visions, and so the Schlemmer painting was perfect grist for his dot-pattern mill. Lichtenstein often seemed divided between admiration for his avant-garde predecessors and an opposing desire to parody their work. Revealingly, in lieu of the male dancer that Schlemmer has positioned in the upper left of his painting, balancing en pointe, Lichtenstein has substituted an Oscar statuette. He thereby flattened the radical lessons of the Bauhaus into a race for an Academy Award.

Although the Lichtenstein was commissioned for a specific site, the painting can be moved without losing any of its aesthetic wattage. “Bauhaus Stairway Mural” is not technically a mural, since it was not painted directly on a wall. Rather, it qualifies as a mural-size painting-on-canvas.

In this way it differs from countless murals whose displacement has basically destroyed them, such as Keith Haring’s buoyant “Grace House Mural” (circa 1983), an 85-foot-long parade of radiant babies, barking dogs and other figures that once adorned the stairwell of a Manhattan youth center. When the center closed, the owner of the building removed the mural and sold it as 13 cutup fragments.

The Lichtenstein mural, which is not for sale, is in no danger of ending up in a chop shop. But it does leave one a bit queasy to think about the photograph that has replaced it in the atrium of the former CAA building on Wilshire. Where the Lichtenstein once hung, an advertisement for Alo products was spotted in mid-September. The ad shows a male model clad from head to toe in clothing emblazoned with the Alo logo. Despite the company’s yoga theme, the model’s pose is less downward-facing dog than “Winged Victory of Samothrace,” his lightweight jacket fluttering in the simulated breeze behind him.

By what calculus would a company choose to furnish their quarters with a poster of a guy modeling a windbreaker rather than a museum-quality painting by Lichtenstein? Granted, companies need to promote their brands. But a generation ago, corporations turned to art to burnish their reputations and acquire a patina of class. Art sponsorship was seen as good business, a mark of prestige, a win-win, not something that took up too much space in the lobby or was too elitist to appeal to customers.

It is proof, not that we need any, that art is the opposite of branding. Branding seeks to deliver a product to the widest possible audience, while art is about one person alone in a room, trying to give physical form to the invisible matter of their inner lives — or in Lichtenstein’s case, wondering if he had an interior life in the first place. As he once said, “I don’t have any big anxieties. I wish I did. I‘d be much more interesting.”

Ethan Tate contributed reporting from Los Angeles.

Roy Lichtenstein: Bauhaus Stairway Mural

Through Dec. 22 at Gagosian Gallery, 555 West 24th Street, Manhattan; (212)-741- 1111, gagosian.com.

Deborah Solomon

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