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January 3, 2013 12:10 am


This is Lichtenstein's first major exhibition since his 1997 death. Above: his 1962 work 'The Ring (Engagement).' we0103roy3.jpg

Roy Lichtenstein's 'Whaam!' is part of a major retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.



Any way you look at it, the "Roy Lichtenstein: Retrospective: at the National Gallery of Art is a super-sized show. A dozen galleries that spill over into the side halls are filled with 160 paintings, sculptures and drawings. The exhibit covers--chronologically and thematically--the high points in the artist's career from the early 1960s until shortly before his death in the mid-1990s.

The key is not in the grand scale of the exhibit, but in one of its most basic components. The simple dot is the link that unifies these works. Small--like the atom--it is potentially explosive in the right hands, as the Lichtenstein "dot" was for 20th-century art.

It's almost a cliche. The dots connect the show starting with an early Pop period that features subject matter pulled from advertisements and catalogs (oversized sneakers, a hot dog) and everyday objects (a very large black-and-white composition book).

Lichtenstein is best-known for his gigantic comic book spin-offs. In the "romance" gallery, a distressed heroine rendered in Ben-Day dots cries out, "I don't care! I'd rather sink--than call Brad for help!" The instant reaction is laughter, not a sound often heard in art galleries.

Pared down to the minimal necessities, his landscapes are composed of only dots. He used Rowlux molded plastic sheets to create colorful abstract works with dots like "Pink Seascape." His modern sculptures, a parody of Art Deco motifs, are created with a brass dot at the core.

Lichtenstein applied his comic style to a series of great masters, most notably Picasso. A Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington and a Piet Mondrain abstract are also recreated with dots. His nudes lack real flesh, being total inventions based not on live models but on his archive of comic book clippings.

The show's variety is impressive, and includes pieces from his his brief excursion into abstract expressionism along with complete abstractions like the Perfect/Imperfect works.

Some may question whether there is emotional depth or any concern with social issues in such abstractions, yet the works are not superficial. There is a system to this simplicity of form. As the dot is one point in a line, Lichtenstein, with his flat surface, is focused on the outermost perceivable layer of reality.

This idea is explored in his late series of "mirror" works, a subject that represents technical virtuosity and reflects nothing but light. In his "Self-Portrait" (1978), the artist's face is replaced by such a a mirror. What does this mean--if it means anything?

If the themes depicted in his still-lifes of the immediate familiar and domestic seem far from original, Lichtenstein has said that what he was after was not "drawing the object itself only drawing a depiction of the object--a kind of crystallized symbol of it."

As Lichtenstein's works meets at the intersection of commercial and fine art, the question remains: Is it art?

The answer might be in the the last gallery, where the dots and styles of a lifetime converge in a series of landscapes inspired by Chinese works painted over a thousand years ago during the Sung Dynasty. In these highly stylized scenes, Lichtenstein distilled the originals into codes and rules before translating them into his own style, with his signature technique of hand-painted but mechanical-looking dots. In those final works, Lichenstein's dot secures his connection to the timeless traditions of art.

Sheila Wickouski, a former Fredericksburg resident, is a freelance reviewer for The Free Lance-Star.

What: 'Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective' When: Through Jan. 13. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Where: The National Gallery of Art, between Third and Ninth streets at Constitution Avenue NW, Washington Cost: Free Info: 202/737-4215;

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