The Strange But True Story of Roy Lichtenstein’s Ill-Fated America’s Cup Sailboat

Though it failed to carry the day in the race, Lichtenstein's nautical work lives on as art.

The Roy Lichtenstein-designed "Young America" in action at the 1995 America's Cup. Photo: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images Sport.

In 1994, Roy Lichtenstein was approached by an elite yacht racing syndicate from Maine to design the hull and spinnaker of their vessel for the 1995 America’s Cup—the most prestigious sailing race in the world.

Racing under skipper Kevin Mahaney, the PACT 95 team sought to defend their America’s Cup crown in style with the help from the famous Pop artist, who emblazoned the 77-foot boat with a striking mermaid design, in his signature comics-influenced style.

Unfortunately, the title defense was unsuccessful. Challengers Team New Zealand came out on top after a gripping race in San Diego (which also saw the first ever all-woman team).

Roy Lichtenstein Mermaid Hull (1994). Detail, installation at Middlebury College Museum of Art. Photo: Jon Olender.

PACT 95’s yacht was the fastest boat in the field and the pre-race favorite. But the vessel was damaged in a storm the night before the race, and its hastily repaired hull struggled to reach its full potential and keep up with the grueling demands of elite racing.

Twenty-two years later, former skipper Mahaney has grown into an art collector and is spearheading an exhibition at the Middlebury College Museum of Art, bringing together Lichtenstein’s sketches, small-scale models, and the original boat hull for the first time. It includes key loans from the Osaka City Museum of Modern Art and the Kevin P. Mahaney Center for the Arts Foundation. The Lichtenstein-painted hull, which has become part of the permanent collection of the Storm King Art Center, is also on view.

Roy Lichtenstein Mermaid Sailboat (Study) (1994). Photo: Private Collection © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

Christened Young America, the vessel is one of Lichtenstein’s largest and last works. Following his design for BMW’s Art Car in 1977, the America’s Cup collaboration is a further example of the crossover appeal that the Lichtenstein and his fellow Pop artists cultivated.

The exhibition opening—which will coincide with the start of this year’s America’s Cup in the Bahamas on May 26—will also feature the premier of Reflections on a Mermaid, a feature-length documentary by the award-winning filmmaker Theodore Bogosian, which documents Lichtenstein’s entire America’s Cup project, including never-before-seen footage of the artist working on the design in his studio, the christening of the vessel in San Diego, and footage of captain Mahaney at the helm of the yacht during the race.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
Article topics