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Roy Lichtenstein: Keen Observer Of Life's Little Ironies

Four years ago, at the time of his big retrospective at New York's Guggenheim Museum, I asked Roy Lichtenstein if he minded being called a Pop painter. The artist, who died Sept. 29, answered, "If people use the word 'Pop' art to differentiate it from art, then I wouldn't like that idea too much. It's inevitable I'm going to be called a Pop artist. The name is going to stick, no matter what I think."

It's not a bad name to be stuck with. The 1960s Pop Art movement, launched by Mr. Lichtenstein and colleagues like Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, brought popular culture into fine art. It made us look at the world around us with sharpened eyes.

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Always a provocateur, Lichtenstein appropriated the subjects and commercial style of cartoons and advertising. He used bold outlines, vivid colors, and stylized forms to simulate mechanical reproduction techniques, like his signature Benday dots. His subjects were initially from True Romance or adventure comics, as well as from the Yellow Pages.

Later he drew on the whole history of art, converted into his ersatz graphic style. He called it "an unartistic style, as artificial as possible," but there's no doubt Lichtenstein ranks as a master of postwar American art.

For him, art was more than a profession; it was a way of looking at the world. "One of the purposes of my painting is to counter liking what you're familiar with," he told me. Instead of knee-jerk sentiment, he wanted viewers to form their own judgments about society, which is too often "pervaded by junk," with an overriding "emphasis on profits." An ironist rather than a moralist, he said his appropriation of low-art subjects and styles "was meant to be humorous."

Lichtenstein's first sold-out show of Pop work at New York's Leo Castelli Gallery in 1962 scandalized critics but captured the zeitgeist of a consumerist era. Dealing with passionate subjects in a dispassionate style, his war paintings and stereotyped languishing ladies "symbolized modern life," he said. "I was fairly sure I had something unusual and important to say."

For 35 years, he reproduced 20th-century visual icons in a style as machine-like as possible. In so doing, he showed what it means to be human. A blue-chip artist, widely celebrated in the art world, he remained self-deprecating and wryly refused to hype his work. When I asked his favorites among his paintings, he answered, "The mirrors were an interesting idea and the [paintings of] brushstrokes, besides the original cartoons. The interiors somehow broke some ground; I'm not quite sure why." Laughing, he concluded, "I hate to enumerate where I was brilliant."

Lichtenstein's 1978 "Self-portrait," depicting himself as a T-shirt with a mirror as his head, sums up his lifetime of sly, probing art. We're all reflections of society, it seems to say, and it behooves us to examine critically the milieu we reflect. If Shakespeare's plays "hold the mirror up to nature," Roy Lichtenstein makes us look in the mirror of human nature.

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