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Not Just Comic Relief

The look and feel of Roy Lichtenstein's paintings have become so deeply ingrained in our culture that it may seem irrelevant to take another, closer look at this quintessentially American painter's work. Or is it?

That's one of the questions addressed by "Roy Lichtenstein: Inside/Outside," now at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami. The show, assembled by MoCA director and chief curator Bonnie Clearwater with the cooperation of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, is the first major exhibition of Lichtenstein's work since his death in 1997 at age 73. It encompasses more than a hundred pieces, including paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, and provides a comprehensive overview of the artist's career, which spanned more than half a century.

Lichtenstein is best-known, of course, for his comics-inspired paintings in which panels from comic strips or books are exploded into larger-than-life images, rendered in bright primary colors and clean, simple lines. Some of the hallmarks of early pop art, in other words.

But early in his career, Lichtenstein added an ingredient called Benday dots that would forever make his work unmistakably his (as well as a source of envy for fellow pop pioneer Andy Warhol). If you've ever seen a Lichtenstein painting -- and if you haven't, where have you been? -- you know what I'm talking about: the dots, uniform in size in some pieces, gradated in others, that usually blanket large portions of the image.

The dots were invented by Benjamin Day, a late-19th-century/early-20th-century American artist and inventor. As a commercial illustrator, Day came up with a way to adapt colored drawings for mass reproduction in newspapers and magazines. It was a complicated process that allowed the reproductions to approximate more closely the gradations of color in the originals. (A sweeping but to my mind useful generalization: Think of Benday dots as roughly comparable to the pixels you see when you drastically enlarge an electronically produced image -- minute components of a much larger whole.)

Lichtenstein became so enamored of this industrial printing device that he used it throughout the rest of his career, professing that he embraced it because it made his images look more mechanical. He even experimented with a variety of techniques for producing the dots until he came upon one, using stencils, that satisfied him with its impersonality.

Regardless of whether he knew the details of his Benday dots' origins, Lichtenstein unabashedly acknowledged the importance of the dots to his imagery. In a painting such as the wonderfully deadpan Magnifying Glass (1963), for example, the dots pretty much are the painting: A 16-by-16-inch canvas is covered with small, uniform black dots, overlaid with a magnifying glass that reveals... larger uniform black dots.

But the famous comics-inspired paintings of the 1960s are just one example of the subject matter to which Lichtenstein applied his distinctive style. During the same era, he also turned to reinterpreting the work of other artists. The spare lines that make up his 1962 Golf Ball can be seen as a redefinition of Piet Mondrian's Pier and Ocean. A decade later, he even quoted himself by slipping a portion of Golf Ball into Still Life with Goldfish (and Painting of Golf Ball). The 1973 piece Trompe L'oeil with Léger Head and Paintbrush incorporates, as the title suggests, a head that could come from nowhere other than a Fernand Léger painting.

The MoCA exhibition includes these pieces as well as many other representative works. The large horizontal canvas Yellow Brushstroke II (1965) is from a series in which the artist combined his Benday dots with big, boldly defined swaths of color. Mirror #2 (24" Diameter) (1970) is from another series in which the title objects usually reflect nothing identifiable but instead focus on color and texture.

There are also still lifes and a variety of drawings, sketches, and studies. And to show how readily Lichtenstein's seemingly flat work translates into three dimensions, there are more than three dozen sculptures and maquettes. (In fact, according to the excellent exhibition catalog, the show began as an exploration of the artist's sculptures before evolving into its current multimedia state.)

A handful of gorgeous pieces from the last few years of Lichtenstein's life demonstrate how infinitely adaptable his style and technique could be. Some of these are Chinese-style landscapes using Benday dots of varying sizes and density, with the stark compositions only minimally accented: in the case of Landscape with Boat (1996), by a tiny vessel coming into (or going out of) the lower left corner, and in the case of the tall, vertical Landscape with Grass (1996), by a few tufts of green in front of layer upon layer of mountains receding into the distance.

Lichtenstein's teacher and mentor, Hoyt Sherman, claimed that what the Chinese called "flat distance" made "all of the pictorial elements appear at the "same' distance from the observer," enabling the artist to create pictorial unity. But as we can also see in these paintings, flat distance paradoxically allows a sense of depth to creep in so that the images have an unstable, vibrant intensity.

The very different Collage for Interior with Painting of Nude and Collage for Interior: Still Life and Sculpture -- both in painted and printed paper on board, and both from 1997, the year Lichtenstein died -- move well beyond such simple imagery and into compositions as richly varied and patterned as those in a Matisse painting. The crisp, thick outlines are still favored, as well as the ubiquitous Benday dots, but Lichtenstein uses them for different effects.

The former piece shows a corner of an artist's studio, with a stool and a table with paints and palette next to the large nude painting of the title. A window in the upper right-hand corner gives us a glimpse of trees and a body of water beyond.

The second picture is even more diverse: a living-room scene with a chair and a table that includes a large reclining sculpture, an open book, and a vase of flowers. Two paintings adorn the wall, and once again, there's a window that gives way to trees and a beach.

To the far left of the room is another table, this one with a mirror that for once reflects something other than color and texture: an artist -- almost certainly a stylized Lichtenstein himself -- holding a painter's palette. Having worked so studiously for more than 50 years to create an impersonal (although far from anonymous) style, Lichtenstein, at the very end of his life, reasserted the personality behind some of the 20th Century's most memorable art.

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Michael Mills

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