NEW YORK — THE ultimate self-effacing artist, Roy Lichtenstein mirrors in his work the exterior world rather than interior angst. Not surprisingly, in his ``Self-Portrait with Mirror,'' he portrays his face as a blank mirror. In a recent interview at his Greenwich Village studio, the 70-year-old artist filled in some blanks.
``My style is an unartistic style that imitates printing and mechanical sources,'' Lichtenstein says. ``It's supposed to look like a fake.'' His Benday dots, heavy black outlines, and simple, flat shapes are aimed at exploring ``how people perceive things.''
``A head composed of lines or dots or yellow hair,'' he continues, citing an example, ``is completely unrealistic, but it's taken not only as real, but people impute feelings to these configurations. They think, this is a sad girl or a happy man, without realizing how artificial the whole thing is.''
The disjunction between his cool technique and the heat of life implies how the media and advertising dictate our perceptions of reality.
``In spite of its sometimes passionate subject matter like war and love, the painting looks as though it was done by a committee,'' Lichtenstein says. ``The passionate subject and impassionate style symbolize modern life - push-button war and all that sort of thing.''
``I don't attempt to make art that is political,'' he insists. Yet his stereotypes of macho males, helpless females, and happy consumers ``seem to comment on our culture,'' he says, explaining his view that it's ``a culture pervaded by junk, where the emphasis on profits seems to override other considerations.''
Given that his work reproduces the most banal objects, like Swiss cheese or a golf ball, in a programmed style, what makes it art rather than kitsch? ``Art has to reveal something we didn't know before,'' the painter asserts. ``The thing that puts it in the realm of art is its sense of unity. Otherwise it would just be an illustration of an idea.''
Lichtenstein combines medium and message in a seamless marriage. ``The underlying meanings,'' he says, ``have to relate to a sense of form,'' just as his cliched style perfectly expresses the conformity of a society where material possessions simulate happiness.
Beneath the bright colors and shorthand shapes that delight the eye, Lichtenstein's vision is disturbing, like a fun-house mirror magnifying society's flaws. What will his canvases reflect next? ``I hope,'' he says, ``I do something I haven't thought of.''