Media Is the Message in LACMA Survey of Lichtenstein

TIMES ART CRITIC

Roy Lichtenstein's 1990 print "Reflections on The Scream" features the Pop artist's usual intermingling of mass-media imagery and classic works of art. Here, the soul-shattering shriek of alienated modern life from Edvard Munch's famous 1893 painting "The Scream" is being uttered by baby Swee' Pea, Popeye's wailing little pal, who seems trapped inside the disoriented looking glass that is our Postmodern image-world.

When you see this Lichtenstein, which is one of 84 prints included in the absorbing and revealing survey exhibition that opened Thursday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, you laugh. Upon reflection, you start to get a bit queasy. Pop art makes jokes, but to serious ends.

I like to think of the flat, black, oval woodcut shape that makes up Swee' Pea's bellowing mouth as an oblique homage that goes back even further than Munch, all the way to Albrecht Durer (1471-1528). The amazing German Renaissance artist set aside painting in favor of turning prints--especially woodcuts--into a powerful, widely accessible language of visual reproduction.

Durer was the first media artist. His multiples effectively competed, as never before, with the singular paintings and sculptures traditionally produced by artists.

Lichtenstein is among his most significant heirs, not least because certain of his prints are as important as his paintings. Lichtenstein may have traded in a classical image of a glum, slumping woman who represents "Melancholia," which Durer made into one of his most poignant prints, in favor of a blond songstress from a True Romance comic, who mournfully croons a lyric from "Star Dust." Yet, a quirky sense of connectedness between these artists is inescapable.

The graphics of Paul Klee and Picasso are Lichtenstein's most obvious and immediate influences. Still, he has taken a sense of eye-riveting pageantry, which Durer used to such persuasive effect in his own day, and made it fully of-the-modern-moment.

Although Durer's apocalyptic prints fired an early salvo, not until our own century did media of reproduction overtake high art as the culture's primary visual currency. One crabbed response among threatened guardians of high culture has been to insist on a strict separation between high art and low.

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Lichtenstein, like other Pop artists, had the good sense to recognize instead that the American pageant was being spoken in the extraordinary language of mass media. So he (and they) used the low as a potent means with which to critique the high.

One compelling feature of the LACMA show, which was organized by the National Gallery of Art and is accompanied by the dutifully thorough book, "The Prints of Roy Lichtenstein: A Catalogue Raisonne 1948-1993," is that it opens with 13 rarely exhibited prints. Most of them are woodcuts, made between about 1950 and 1956, long before his more familiar Pop work of the 1960s and beyond.

Interestingly, this early work's initial subject is a playful, European Romance of knights in shining armor, followed by a switch to an American Romance of the Wild West ("A Cherokee Brave," "Indian and Teepees," "The Chief," etc.). Thematically, the pageant comes home.

Stylistically, it doesn't do that until 1963, in comic-inspired works such as "Crying Girl." Lichtenstein's earliest Pop paintings date from 1961, as attested by the retrospective of his paintings and sculptures shown exactly one year ago at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The current show reveals an apparent hiatus in his printmaking activity between 1957 and 1963. (Lichtenstein was on the move in those years, from teaching gigs in Ohio, Upstate New York and New Jersey, and his painting was developing fast.) Then, the prints take off.

Much of the artist's graphic work inventively mixes a surprising variety of masterful techniques. This interest in mixing is evident early on, in such eccentric combinations as lithograph, engraving, aquatint and intaglio in "The King" (circa 1950). When he returned to printmaking in 1963, Lichtenstein picked up that experimental thread.

In 1964 he printed on clear plastic ("Sandwich and Soda"). In 1965 he used light-reflective, moire-patterned plastic as a surface ("Moonscape"). In 1966 he printed on shiny silver foil ("Lincoln Center Poster"). In 1970 he made "Peace Through Chemistry," a brightly colored lithograph and screenprint, and he also made another, nearly identical "Peace Through Chemistry" as a multiple relief in the time-honored material of bronze.

Something of a crescendo is reached in 1985 with the series "Landscapes," in which beautifully manipulated techniques of lithography, screenprint and woodcut are executed in literally dozens of colors, which combine to create works of mind-boggling lushness and complexity. By the time you reach the end of the show, you will have encountered prints that employ anodized aluminum, shopping bags, cherry wood, polyester fabric, wallpaper, cardboard and stainless steel.

This emphasis on experimentation with unusual materials, methods and virtuoso techniques (often undertaken with the collaboration of talented printers at such places as Gemini G.E.L. and Tyler Graphics Ltd.) yields an appropriate edge of the spectacular to an art whose subject is our inescapable entanglement with mass media.

* Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 857-6000, through April 30. Closed Mondays.

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