New York

Roy Lichtenstein

Mary Boone Gallery / Leo Castelli Gallery

Roy Lichtenstein’s mirror paintings, executed between 1969 and 1972, reflect nothing: as such, they are both cruel and true. These mirrors do not offer easy narcissistic gratification, allegorical meanings, or narrative logic. They do not tell us that we are the fairest in the land; they do not flatter us with false promises of referentiality or content. They are exultant images of an emptiness endemic to American popular culture. Lichtenstein as an artist refuses to comment on this emptiness; like Warhol, he absorbs it and reproduces it with a kind of vacant intensity whose beauty has not faded in the twenty years or so since these images were first produced.

Lichtenstein’s mirrors possess the strength of images that are pure immanence. Although it is tempting to moralize how all that glitters is not gold, the things that gold can buy have a certain shine of their own. Twenty years ago Lichtenstein wanted to paint that shine—the shine of the polished mirror, apple, eyeball, ice-cream soda glass, Formica counter, or stainless steel toaster. Before the arrival of post-Modern matte blacks, that shine was everything. It signified the new, the expensive, the clean, pure, heroic, and beautiful. Lichtenstein anticipated the full estheticization of the shine. He worked out ways of reducing the canvas, that maligned and fetishized terrain, into pure surface. Lichtenstein’s mirrors offered the possibility of looking and seeing nothing; these early works show also how that nothingness can be strangely beautiful and intense. Untitled, 1972, reveals a certain skewed yin-yang configuration in the way an arc of black cuts a swath of darkness across a perfect, white circle. In Untitled, 1969, the ground is almost completely covered with Benday dots, ripples of black and white that create the illusion both of a frame and of false light reflected off a surface. One half expects the face of one of Lichtenstein’s cartoon characters to appear across the field of vision. These works freeze light and shadow. They evoke imaginary rooms, imaginary figures.

The figures and spaces which seem to be on the verge of appearing in the mirror works at Mary Boone show up across the street in Lichtenstein’s recent paintings at Leo Castelli. Here are the familiar cartoon characters, but what we see is not the reproduction of a figure; it is the reproduction of a reflection. The characters are caught in a glassy two-dimensionality; the picture plane is interrupted by the abstract representations of reflected light. Lichtenstein holds up a mirror to his own past; with these works, he reflects, in a figurative and metaphorical way, on the images he has produced throughout his career. In Reflections: Sunday Morning, 1989, Dagwood, comfortably settled in an armchair, reads the Sunday paper. The painting of this familiar icon of the married male is bisected by strips of Benday dots. These strips of imaginary light and shadow frame this caricature of the domestic setting and give it depth. This illusion of depth gives the work a haunted and ghostly quality. Lichtenstein has gone from the mirror in the image to the image in the mirror.

Catherine Liu