A Fresh Look At Pop Painter Roy Lichtenstein

`WHAAM!'' and ``Blam!'' are titles of some of Roy Lichtenstein's Pop paintings, inspired by war comics. The words also describe the artist's impact on the art world during a high-visibility career of three decades.

In 1961, Lichtenstein first based a painting on popular culture with ``Look Mickey,'' featuring that dynamic cartoon duo, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Faster than a speeding bullet, he zoomed to notoriety.

Life magazine asked, ``Is He the Worst Artist in the U.S.?'' Acclaim replaced outrage when critics agreed public accessibility wasn't perforce trashy.

Now the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum has mounted an in-depth survey of Lichtenstein's work that proves Pop is far from pooped.

As befits an exhibition partially underwritten by Marvel Comics, the paintings circle museum ramps like a Mobius comic strip. As the viewer progresses, however, what becomes obvious is how the artist's humorous treatment of nonserious subjects implies serious social criticism. And how Pop transcends its sources to make lasting art out of the ephemera of nonart.

The paintings based on romance cartoons, in which besotted women burn with unrequited ardor, seem as ludicrous as the advertising image of a homemaker blissfully defrosting her refrigerator.

Lichtenstein's war-comic knockoffs convert military missions into sanitized, technicolor designs. Jagged yellow lines and fronds of red suggest explosions but omit the consequences of violence.

Another form-follows-function technique is Lichtenstein's use of multipanel paintings. His diptychs and triptychs, formerly associated with religious art, aggrandize their secular subjects to show how society makes a religion of consumption.

The paintings alternate between purely formalistic exercises, like oval ``mirrors'' or minimalistic geometric designs, and dotty compositions packed full of signature artifacts.

Whether spare or florid, the canvases mimic commercial reproductions, from advertisements to vulgarized versions of fine art. They ask, What's wrong with this picture? The answer is Lichtenstein's view of what's wrong with our society.

Lichtenstein has long been recognized as one of the most significant painters of the postwar era. A surprise is that he's also a considerable sculptor. The 23 sculptures in the show are like 3-D versions of his paintings. The monumental ``Brushstroke Nude'' in the lobby is all curvaceous swirls of red, white, and blue like a coiled Lady Liberty. A painted bronze, ``Mobile III,'' parodies Alexander Calder, playfully freezing bobbing shapes into petrified stasis.

Lichtenstein's most recent work, ``Large Interior with Three Reflections,'' is both a continuation and an extension of his concern with perception and social values. He paints picture-perfect but soulless model rooms strewn with accessories treated as decor - whether art or an ashtray.

In one panel, a hand pulls back a curtain in a gesture that can be read as either revealing or concealing, as the artist either peers at us or provides a glimpse of a hidden interior.

Three canvases hung opposite the huge triptych are mirror images of it, with diagonal bars to indicate ``reflections'' fragmenting the scenes. There is no individual interior, Lichtenstein seems to say. We are all broken reflections of the outside world.

The exhibition's curator, Diane Waldman, who mounted the first survey of Lichtenstein's work in 1969, decided a full retrospective was due when she saw Lichtenstein's series of room interiors, which she says, ``represented another breakthrough in his work'' equal to his first cartoon paintings. ``In this exhibition,'' she adds, ``there's a certain symmetry. The end is the beginning. The interiors recapitulate in a less explicit sense his early ideas, yet go one step beyond. They look backwards and forwards, still asking, Who are we? What is our society about?''

* ``Roy Lichtenstein'' will be on display at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through Jan. 16, 1994. The exhibition then travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

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