Roy Lichtenstein, Master of Fictitious Mirrors

This posting happened to be “unexpected”, too; but in a different way that the one on Delvaux. This time I was sent, via i_shmael, a ‘gift’ of some sort, a few  photographs from the  Tate Modern in London that currently hosts a large exhibition by  Roy Lichtenstein. Well, on that occasion why not write a posting, then, about him, and his mirrors?  Here it is, with the dedication to the gift-giver, and also with thanks to  i_shmael.

The picture above is not by Roy Lichtenstein himself; it’s his portrait by Bob Kessel,  an American artist who specializes in taking somebody else’s paintings and distilling the to the very essence. 

Looks like the very essence of Lichtenstein is his own reflection in the mirror looking at himself.

A biography of the artist is described quite well on the famous site, so I am not going to repeat it here again here to repeat it again (there is alos a very detail account of his life on the site of the Lichtenstein Foundation).

Paradoxical enough, he was a visual artist by education, by training, and by action, spending a good number of years building his carrer as a painter and illustrator. And yet almost all he created in the first part of his life is really forgotten, very few people are interested those works, and even if they are, then to only better understand what has happened to him in the second half of his art life.

Paul Delvaux soared as surrealist painter, and Roy Liechtenstein became himself, the Liechtenstein as we know hi, only after he became a ‘pop artist’, around the beginning of the 1960s (he was born in 1923 – which means hat the first 40 years were a sort of  warm-up, no more). His early, pre 1960 works are really difficult to find, at least in the internet, where they’ve been completely outshined by his later masterpieces.

Pop-art was a dirty word in my childhood (1970-s, Soviet Union); not only it was a synonym of bad taste, but more generally symbolized ‘rotten bourgeois art’, if not ‘decadent capitalism’ in general. At least that was told in the books I read in the 1970-1980s. By that time Lichtenshtein personally, and pop art movement as a whole have long ago became the “classics” in the West. However, it’s worth remembering that in the 1960s, when everything was just starting, pop-art was quite a swearing word in US and Europe alike. I bet the artist has heard not once about somebody’s children who can paint better.

Look Mickey (1961)

This is one of the earliest paintings of the new, pop-Lichtenstein, but it has almost all the ingredients of his later works – nearly ostentatious primitivism (basically your child can indeed paint it, especially if you allow him to make copies from the old comic books); bright colors, huge size (this is a very large work, almost 2 meters wide);  shameless reuse of the well-known cultural memes, to the level of plagiarism (“they are not able to create anything new!”, shouted the critics).

Interesting, but the criticism was going not so much from the supporters of the “classical’ (read “realistic”) art, but from many so called ‘modern artists, including abstractionists or minimalists). They tried, and so hard, to elevate their art on the new heights, to only see, oh, forgive me, please, these piles of ridiculous crap! Its place in a trashcan, not in the museums, right?

The choice of comics as a starting point for “inspiration” irritated even more than the infamous urinal; there we can sense at least some some of juxtaposition, high vs low, beauty vs ugliness. Here it’s just blunt stupidity, a clownish buffoonery; to argue with *that* is like wrestle with a pig in mud.

Here’s another example, the famous Whaam! (1963) – in fact, literally a remake of one of the comics for the schoolboys, only made a size of a wall (this is really a huge, four-meter wide painting, now in the Tate Modern,I believe.)

These works made people no less mad than the famous Campbell’s Soups. And in fact in many ways called up with the Warhal’s works; at some point Liechtenstein began to produce very similar “everyday objects” in his paintings, for example, a can of spray, or a glass of with a dissolving Alka-Seltzer pill, and the like:

Spray (1963)

Alka Seltzer (1966)

The last work also shows a trick that became a brand for Liechtenstein, the dots. It is not clear whether this was just a random discovery or a well calculated stunt, but from a certain point almost all his works have these “dots” (or better, are made of them):

Magnifying glass (1963)

Their presence can be explained by the printing press’ working principles, where a picture is created from these “pixels” of ink, so small that they are hardly visible separately. Yet when you  try to zoom in, they grew larger and larger, and at some point the picture disintegrates into a collection of meaningless spots. You can make such stuff yourself, by repeatedly enlarging a newspaper clip in a copying machine few times (although I have to be careful here, I am not so sure that modern printing works that way; it can follow the same technology as our displays, where the pixels create different patters when magnified).

But we may also assume that these dots emerged because of deep fine understanding of the laws of optics and, broader, the laws of perception, by Lichtenstein. He did knew the works of the pointillists, for example, and most likely was familiar with the methods of image creation developed by Benjamin H. Day, an American illustrator and printer (these ‘dots’ are in fact named after him, they are known as Ben-Day Dots).

Usually these ‘dots’ are seen as faulty printing, but in case of Lichtenstein the bug became a feature, in fact, one of the most recognizable trait of his works.

Another recognizable feature of his paintings was their explicit “talkativeness”; sometimes it took a form of the word bubbles literally present on the cavases, but sometimes expressed in less explicit, yet very vivid narrative structure:

Ohhh… Alright (1964)

Copying and enlarging comics doesn’t require much brain (and craft), said his critics.  Lichtenstein replied that he was making the most difficult and important work of art, digging to the very essence of the image, its core ‘visual soul’.

“I’m never drawing the object itself; I’m only drawing a depiction of the object – a kind of crystallized symbol of it.”

On the other hand, he also claimed that his art is essentially “superficial”, and deliberately so, and that there is no need to look for “deeper meanings” in his works:

“My paintings are anti-contemplative, anti-nuance, anti-getting-away-from-the-tyranny-of-the-rectangle. . . anti-mystery. Mine is unpretentious art.

Ok, all the above was interesting and important, but it was merely an introduction, like the first half of the Lichtenstein’s life. The tales (= the mirror) are just beginning.

The very first the mirror of Lichtenstein also became one of his most famous – not only mirrors, but his works in general:

Girl in mirror (1964)

This is a fairly large painting (approximately one meter by one); painted by the special enamels on a think steel sheet, it’s also very contemporary in terms of the materials used. Because of that, it is also amazingly, almost garishly, bright and to you face; like the girl herself, who almost shout (some people say ‘laugh’) in her hand-held mirror. More precisely, this is not even one work, but many – like with many of his other paintings, Lichtenstein made a few numbered ‘editions’ (ten, to my knowledge).

On the remaining sketch shows that the initial drawing was made in a traditional way, and that the dots appeared only later:

In terms of the ‘mirror work’, the take is not so unique; in my own slang I call it Far Side the Moon, when the mirror shows us that we wouldn’t able to see otherwise (the girl’s face, in this case (I initially call it ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, but had to change it, since too many people come to this blog looking for the Pink Floyd’s famous album).

The same method can be found already in the works by Hieronymus Bosch, in his Superbia; and in fact this is exactly it, indulging self-admiration). If the hyper bright colors are not so novel, if remember the Venuses by Titian and then by Rubens. Never mind originality, it’s not what pop-artists are aimed at; but everything else is just great about this work, so not surprisingly it became very popular very quickly. In fact, it has been for a long time a “bizcard” of the artist; so it’s only logical that it is on the cover of one of the first large exhibition of his works in Europe:

“Roy Lihtenshtein. Mirror Images 1963-1997” says the title. Unfortunately, I don’t have this book, perhaps all what I am talking about here is already very well described there, and I am just waisting my time; oh, well.

Apparently, the work (and/or the subject) very much pleased the author himself, since he also used it for one of his first 3D work, a lovely sculpture Girl with Mirror:

And after almost 30 years he will create another Girl at the Mirror, a self-homage of some sort. The girl has hardly changed (but the mirror grew up a little bit; but there are reasons for that):

Girl at the mirror (1994)

I’d love to quickly jump on other, major mirrors of Lichtenstein, but it would be a pity to miss one interesting early “mirror” of him; the mirrors goes with the inverted commas, because it is technically speaking it’s not a mirror, but some kind of seal ring, or a brooch. But it is so large that it looks almost like a small mirror; and it ‘works’ like a mirror, too, reflecting the face of an “eccentric scientist,” according to the title of the painting.

Eccentric Scientist (1965)

It’s a very modern solution, to show in the painting only a reflection, and not the object that is being reflected. We see this used only from the beginning of the XX century onward (although there are some remarkable exception, for example, the famous Self-Portrait in Convex Mirror by Parmigianino.

These are both nice works, but even if Lichtenstein painted ten more equally beautiful girls with the mirrors and eccentric scientists with the seal-rings, he would be only marginally present in my Hall of Famous Mirrors.

However, as soon as he created the very first of his famous “numbered mirror”, he entered  and firmly occupied one of central places in this imaginary Hall. And in fact he painted tens of these mirrors  and not the girls or scientist.

Lichtenstein “mirrors” that he started to produce from the beginning of the 1970s, looked like this one:

Mirror #2 (1971)

or like that:

Mirror #4 (1972)

or like that:

Mirror #1 (1970)

These are not real mirrors, of course, but the paintings of the mirrors, the ‘depictions of the mirrors’, even. Again, I would need to use ‘inverted commas’ when describing them as ‘mirrors’ – since there is nothing specific in them which would make us believe they are the mirrors. Yes, they are round – but so are the dishes, or trays.  These paintings could well be titled as ‘Tray #2’  or ‘Tray #6’.

But the Master declared them “mirrors” – and they became such! A dragontrap closed, and we see inside a real dragon mirror! [I’d need to explain here what do I mean by ‘dragontrap’, or better place a link to a posting about it… which is not yet written.] 

As I wrote a bit earlier, it was Parmigianino who made the first, and brilliant “portrait of a mirror” – but he had to also bring himself into the pictures, to make it work. For Lichtenstein it was enough to simply announce that what we see are the mirrors (and not the an assemblage of random dots) – and voila, people are looking at the canvases, as if in the hope to see something there; perhaps, the loved themselves.

Here are the images I’ve got as a gift:

Mirror #1 in real life:

These are the Mirrors #6 and #2, but I can’t be 100% sure, the light is not perfect, and the pictures are made by iPhone, I guess:

(I like the ropes; to prevent looking at yourself too much?).

I don’t know the number of this mirror, I don’t have this version in my collection:

I have also received this text:

I didn’t know that he studied “pictorial conventions” (whatever that means) of how mirrors are portrayed, and also to pictures of many mirrors, to understand they play with light, so this was interesting to learn.

The statements like those about ‘mirror symbolization’ is, of course, a rubbish; 100+ postings in this blog say exactly the opposite. The same stands for these (pseudo) trompr l’oei that supposedly deceive somebody; they don’t. There are working not because they resemble reality, but because they hack it, they impose on reality the artist’s wish – thus making new hyper-reality, twisted ‘reality’, in the same way Neo was bending around the infamous spoon.

The exhibition in Tate Modern will last till May, if you are around or plan to be in London, don’t miss it.

There are also lots of interesting things on their website now, for example, a large video, Diagram of an Artist, showing his working process. I do not know if they will keep it there after the show (and I can’t copy download it from the website, unfortunately, so I can only put the link here):

At the 6th minute Lichtenstein talks about the use of mirrors in their work, how they help him to get rid of “unnecessary” and highlight those “crystals”, the “essence” of the image; interesting.

Also interesting to see a huge mirror in his studio:

It’s interesting in itself, but also because apparently this mirror served as a prototype, a ‘model’ for his next big ‘mirror series’, that one was he was creating in parallel to its ’round mirrors’. These are so-called “Six-part mirrors”:

Mirror in six panels #2 (1972)

Mirror in six panels #1 (1972)

Like many of his other works, these are huge, 2 by 5 meters large installation. Like with his other “mirrors”, there is nothing specifically ‘mirrorish’ about them, apart of the claim that they are. And like in the case of other ‘mirrors’, the same magic is at play, you either believe that these are mirrors, and they appear, beautiful and fantastic;  or you don’t, and they remain to be large collections of colorful dots.

To my knowledge, he made seven or eight version of each these work, but some are slightly different from the basic pattern, and in a way can be considered seperate works.

There is a whole book published which, as I understand, is completely dedicated to the mirrors of Lichtenstein. There they are collected all, I assume, and described in much more eloquent way, too (what I try to squeeze into one blog posting, more skilled people mange to extend to a book; kudos!)

And even ‘not one but two’ books!

The second book si not only *about* Lichtenstein, but also includes the texts and diaries of the artists, and should be very interesting reading; I didn’t manage to get any of these books yet.

As in the case of the Girl with the Mirror, the theme of “mirrors” was such a success,  that Lichtenstein also made a few ‘mirror sculptures’:

The name of the first book about Lichtenstein’s mirrors, by Graham Bader, is the Hall of Mirrors. It sounds cool but in a sense it contradicts to what is shown on the cover – because what is shown is an isolated, ‘stand-alone’ mirror, torn out of any contexts, including the spatial one, too.  Lichtenstein’s late ‘mirrors’ are ‘just mirrors’, the ones without halls, or walls – or people.

Such decontextualizations, when the work is deliberately pulled out of any context is a popular (sic!) strategy of many pop artists. But I think that at some points the contexts began to knock on their doors, too. We see the latest works by Lichtenstein with mirror are more grounded in reality, more contextualized – such as these interiors with the mirrors he was making at the end of 1970s:

Not all ‘reflecting surfaces’ on these works can be confidently called ‘mirrors;  they may also turn into the ‘widows’, or the ‘walls’.  However, we clearly see the desire and the efforts to show us this ‘game of reflections’: sometimes vague and obscure, but sometimes very clear and accurate, like in this work called The Star (1978):

But sometimes it feels like the artist is trying to catch us in some sort of perceptual trap – as, for example, in this work, where we have to wonder whether it is a mirror above the cabinet or just a painting – but then with a mirror in it!

It is well-known that Lichtenstein had a good a sense of humor.

Another example of such visual jokes is his well-known “Interior with a painting of a bathroom”:

Here our first reaction is that we see a large mirror, apparently in a bathroom… but then we see that it is in fact a living room! And therefore this surface is not of the mirror, but of the painting! However, there is a mirror in this picture too – it’s *in* the second painting.

When looking at many of his ‘interiors’ I noticed that many of the pictures shown in them look like by Lichtenstein himself; I guess, it often may be the case. I’m not sure about the “Bathroom Painting” , some of these ‘paintings in the paintings’ have real-life  “prototypes”, so to speak. Self-citation is another characteristic feature of pop art, and Lichtenstein indulge in it during nearly all of his pop-art-life.

The following may look like a tangent to my mirror story, but I’d mention it, even if briefly. Throughout his life Lichtenstein painted many so-called remakes, or re-appropriations, of the works of other master. Here are just a few examples:

The real masterpiece in this genre is, of course, his Las Meninas; is not just a remake, but a remake of a remake, in this case, it also includes an allusion to the famous series of Picasso devoted to the Meninas (I once wrote a bit about this case, in The One Thousand and One Re-interpretation).

Itself an interesting theme, it also helps us to correctly relate one of the mirrors of Lichtenstein:

Girl with a mirror (1977)

This may look like a girl bathing, or swimming, but in reality it’s an allusion to (or a quote from) the famous Picasso’s Girl with a Mirror.

The following work is also a quote, but from yourself; a self-quotation or an auto-homage:

From a first look it’s just a still life, with a glass and a lemon. But the work is called Before the Mirror, and only then we clearly see the ‘mirror’ – and it looks like his very own six-part mirror!

Here’s my “visual summary’, a depiction of my march through the pop-landscape or Lichtenstein’s mirrors:

If I’d write a book on the subject, I’d call it The Master of Virtual Mirrors.


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