Roy Lichtenstein’s Mermaid Resurfaces in Film and Exhibition

“Young America: Roy Lichtenstein and the America’s Cup,” opens on Friday, May 26, at the Middlebury College Museum of Art in Vermont
Few people know that Roy Lichtenstein designed a boat for one of the teams in the 1995 America’s Cup sailing competition. The spinnaker, on the boat above, was raised once before disappearing. The artist, below, nicknamed the mermaid he placed on the prow Dorothy. Theodore Bogosian/Reflections on a Mermaid

Coming upon the brightly painted boat hull mounted on a tiny island at the Storm King Art Center, the uninitiated might quickly identify the comic-book style of Roy Lichtenstein, but its otherwise mysterious presence prompts more questions than it answers.

The boat, the subject of a new exhibition and film, has been in residence at the New Windsor, N.Y., sculpture park since 2003. It looks like a creative folly, but the hull, decorated with the artist’s jaunty mermaid (nicknamed Dorothy, presumably for his second wife, Dorothy Lichtenstein), is not only sound, but was technically advanced for its time, and built with the intention of winning the 1995 America’s Cup.

It was one of the last major commissions for Lichtenstein, whose flat, bold paintings became some of Pop Art’s best-known works from the 1960s onward. He died in 1997.

“Young America: Roy Lichtenstein and the America’s Cup,” which opens on Friday, May 26, at the Middlebury College Museum of Art in Vermont, will trace the history of the boat from idea to retirement. Its opening is timed to the beginning of this year’s America’s Cup races in Bermuda.

“Reflections on a Mermaid,” a film by Ted Bogosian that dovetailed with the organization of the exhibition, is about the commissioning of the hull painting, the 1995 sailing competition, and what has happened since. It will be completed this summer and shown in the fall at Guild Hall, where some scenes were filmed during the museum’s 2015 Lichtenstein exhibition, “Between Sea and Sky.” There are also plans to show the film on PBS later this year. It includes footage of the boat and its crew Mr. Bogosian shot while directing “War in the Wind,” a PBS documentary on the 1995 Citizen Cup races, which were qualifying races for the America’s Cup.

Two years after he won the silver medal in sailing at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Kevin Mahaney approached his fellow Mainer and mariner John Marshall, who had been prominent in America’s Cup racing since 1974 and was head of design for the boat Dennis Conner used to win the cup back from Australia in 1987. Mr. Mahaney wanted to put together a dream team of sailors and build a boat to match.

They formed PACT 95, a nonprofit syndicate, to raise money by allocating shares in the ownership of the boat. Mr. Marshall was president and Mr. Mahaney skipper. A 1984 graduate of Middlebury College, where he studied art, Mr. Mahaney wanted a hull design that wasn’t only technically advanced, but educational as well. 

In a scene from the film, recently screened at the New York Yacht Club in Manhattan, Mr. Marshall described the discussions that led to the artwork’s commission. “I was visiting a serious art collector talking about what would make the boat really special. He said, ‘It’s really simple. You have to have a great artist do it.’ I said, ‘I don’t know any great artists and why would anyone be interested in doing a sailboat?’ He said, ‘Well, Roy Lichtenstein might.’ ”

Mr. Marshall call­ed Lichtenstein “un­believ­ably modest. He said, ‘Well, I don’t know whether I’ll have a good idea, and if you don’t like what I’m doing, of course you don’t have to do it.’ ” He not only came up with the scheme for the boat hull, but did a series of drawings inspired by the project and designed a spinnaker.

The artist used a one-to-nine scale model to execute his design, which he sketched on the model with a projection of a transparency, and used tape to make his densely outlined drawing. A team of students from the Rhode Island School of Design painted the actual 77-foot, one-ton boat, which the syndicate dubbed Young America.

Although Lichtenstein had been living part time and sometimes full time at a house and studio in Southampton since the 1960s, Rob McKeever, his former assistant, said after the screening that the hull design was executed in his New York City studio.

The PACT 95 team and Young America had the best record in the qualifying races, but lost in the final to Mr. Conner’s team. Mr. Conner made the unusual move of enlisting Young America as the boat he would race against New Zealand, abandoning his own boat, Stars and Stripes, and requiring his team to acquaint themselves with a new one with very little lead time.

Despite expectations that it was destined for greatness, Young America was ill-fated. It was damaged twice, including by a freak tornado and water spout in San Diego that blew the boat off its cradle before it was christened — the only vessel in the boatyard damaged by the storm. Mr. Conner also lost the America’s Cup to New Zealand while racing in it.

The boat would still be seaworthy if its keel were reattached, but J. Carter Brown, who was a former director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., a longtime Storm King board member, and a sailor, had other plans. Before he died in 2002, he arranged for the donation of the hull to Storm King. Earlier this spring, the boat was detached from its mount in New York and loaded onto a trailer and taken up to Vermont, where it will be installed through August.

Mr. Mahaney, who endowed the arts center at Middlebury and organized the exhibition, said at the screening that he hoped to have the hull installed briefly at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which is near his New York City residence. He would like to see it on the museum’s outdoor sculpture patio, with the prow jutting over the High Line. He said the Whitney will also screen Mr. Bogosian’s film once it is completed.  Middlebury College created a setting quite similar to Storm King’s for the installation of the hull. It sits in a small man-made pond dug specifically for the show. Inside, a collection of preparatory drawings and designs for the hull and the spinnaker, on loan from the Osaka Maritime Museum in Japan, will be on display. Missing from the show will be the boat’s spinnaker itself, which was not race-worthy and was raised only once for a trial run before it disappeared. Mr. Mahaney said he hopes the exhibition will spark “an international treasure hunt” for the spinnaker.

Given the unusual nature of the commission, Mr. Mahaney did express surprise that more people did not know about it. Lichtenstein “was doing his nude series at the time, and it all came together over a two-to-four-month period. It kind of got lost.” While he was securing the works in Japan for the Middlebury show, he came across a vellum sketch that Lichtenstein had kept for his own collection and said he was thrilled that it had meant enough to the artist that he had preserved it as a keepsake.

It also demonstrated that very little had changed from his original concept to the image now on the boat. Mr. Mahaney said he was impressed by the artist’s “understanding of going from two dimensions to three dimensions and how the boat would move” through the water. “His fundamental understanding of movement and color and light is just genius.” 

The Middlebury College Museum of Art exhibition will feature the hull that Roy Lichtenstein designed, above, along with the scale model he worked on in his studio and a model of his spinnaker, below, which is now lost.c3