by Rachel Pafe

Stare at the newspaper for too long. First words will appear, followed by pulpy ridges, chased by spots. Each letter is the careful conglomeration of hundreds of thousands of minute marks that solidify as you grip the page. The curator of the National Gallery of Art’s Roy Lichtenstein retrospective (open now through January 13, 2013, so you have no excuses not to go-ed), Harry Cooper, also asks us to look a little closer at the dots.

The opportunity occurs during encounter with the first work in the show, the iconic Look Mickey! (1961). It is considered one of the first instances of Roy Lichtenstein’s “classic pop” style: bold, hand-painted dots and lines imitating mass commercial printing presses. Up close, Mickey’s face is riddled with lopsided spots, the white background is filled with pencil marks and the dark lines look feathery and uneven.

Surrounding Look Mickey! are works featuring isolated objects, such as a shoe, hot dog, wedding ring and can of spray paint. These normally mundane objects are elevated to artworks through the use of scale and cropping, which are conversely utilized in the next room, filled with magnified black and white close-ups, to turn everyday objects into abstractions. Lichtenstein additionally subtracts details to make his point, such as in the subsequent room featuring melodramatic comic clips depicting pining lovers. He repurposes the original comics by only including essential facts that create drama within the panel, especially evident in his works dealing with war, which include cartoonish violent explosions.

The exhibition explores this selective cropping through a narrative path. The viewer is guided from singular objects to their evolution into romance, to their dissolution in chaotic war. Following war is a series of serene sunsets and a “self portrait” in which only an empty, white tee shirt and flat rectangle stand in place of the artist. Identity is further broken down through Lichtenstein’s remaking of famous works throughout art history in his flat, pop style and increasingly uniform dot patterns.

Throughout his career, critics of Lichtenstein often retorted that not only was his work unemotional, but that it focused on form rather than message and content. This point is reinforced when several children enter with squeals of delight upon recognizing their favorite cartoon character. On a cursory glance, all of the work can be seen in this light: glorifying the satisfaction of interpretation, praising mass-produced products and culture that everyone can appreciate and take part in.

A look into one of the paintings from the Mirrors series sullies this interpretation, however. The shiny surfaces are reduced to abstract patterns, although the frame and title make the object recognizable. Look into the mirror and there is no suggestion of self. Whereas the previous works seem to celebrate mass identity through popular symbols, the trace of the individual is missing, just as in Lichtenstein’s self portrait. While there is nothing in the mirror, the dots that make it up are filled with imperfections: brush marks and rough edges show a human presence, just like in Look Mickey!.

Therein lies the paradox of Lichtenstein. He is the pioneer who refused to interpret his work, the destroyer of high art who is now seen as an art historical figure, the mass producer who used painstakingly hand-painted details. In those imperfect ridges, misshapen spots, the individual can find room for reflection. Go ahead, Mickey will wait for you.