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A Fresh Look At Pop Painter Roy Lichtenstein

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`WHAAM!'' and ``Blam!'' are titles of some of Roy Lichtenstein's Pop paintings, inspired by war comics. The words also describe the artist's impact on the art world during a high-visibility career of three decades.

In 1961, Lichtenstein first based a painting on popular culture with ``Look Mickey,'' featuring that dynamic cartoon duo, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Faster than a speeding bullet, he zoomed to notoriety.

Life magazine asked, ``Is He the Worst Artist in the U.S.?'' Acclaim replaced outrage when critics agreed public accessibility wasn't perforce trashy.

Now the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum has mounted an in-depth survey of Lichtenstein's work that proves Pop is far from pooped.

As befits an exhibition partially underwritten by Marvel Comics, the paintings circle museum ramps like a Mobius comic strip. As the viewer progresses, however, what becomes obvious is how the artist's humorous treatment of nonserious subjects implies serious social criticism. And how Pop transcends its sources to make lasting art out of the ephemera of nonart.

The paintings based on romance cartoons, in which besotted women burn with unrequited ardor, seem as ludicrous as the advertising image of a homemaker blissfully defrosting her refrigerator.

Lichtenstein's war-comic knockoffs convert military missions into sanitized, technicolor designs. Jagged yellow lines and fronds of red suggest explosions but omit the consequences of violence.

Another form-follows-function technique is Lichtenstein's use of multipanel paintings. His diptychs and triptychs, formerly associated with religious art, aggrandize their secular subjects to show how society makes a religion of consumption.

The paintings alternate between purely formalistic exercises, like oval ``mirrors'' or minimalistic geometric designs, and dotty compositions packed full of signature artifacts.

Whether spare or florid, the canvases mimic commercial reproductions, from advertisements to vulgarized versions of fine art. They ask, What's wrong with this picture? The answer is Lichtenstein's view of what's wrong with our society.

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