"Hot Dog with Mustard," 1963

"Hot Dog with Mustard," 1963 (Courtesy of The National Gallery of Art / January 3, 2013)

Among the things produced by post-World War II consumer-driven culture was artist Roy Lichtenstein, who loved to chronicle its commercial products and other pop cultural attributes. The National Gallery of Art's big and cheerful Lichtenstein retrospective is the first since the artist died in 1997 at the age of 73.

Lichtenstein was one of the so-called pop artists who came on the scene in the early 1960s and made high art out of lowly subject matter. His tendency to work in thematic series makes him a prime candidate for such retrospective treatment, because these series are concisely treated in a room-by-room way.

The artist basically announces his career agenda in the oil painting "Look Mickey" (1961). Derived from an illustration in a Disney childrens book, this painting depicts Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse fishing on a pier. Donald says via a comic-strip-style dialogue balloon: "Look Mickey, I've Hooked a Big One."

This painting has the visual immediacy of its childrens book source. The figures are defined with thick black lines; the palette of yellow, blue and red assertively packs a punch; and the compositional flatness and directness owe more to commercial art than to perspective-sensitive fine art.


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However, Lichtenstein isn't simply making a large-scale copy of his source material. Here and throughout his career, he makes adjustments in the images and coloration in order to serve his own purposes.

Consumer products predominate in these early paintings. The title says it all in "Keds" (1961), which, yes, depicts a pair of black tennis shoes mock-dramatically backed by a jagged yellow background. In the equally blunt "Sponge" (1962), that sponge is held by a female hand; her bright red nails make it clear that this domestic product was mostly used by women in that pre-women's lib era.

Lichtenstein satirically turns to pop cultural depictions of women in a series derived from illustrated romantic stories published by DC Comics. One of the most melodramatically pungent of his comic-book-derived paintings is "Drowning Girl" (1963). Only the drowning woman's head rises above churning waves in this tightly cropped image; and the woman's eyes are brimming with such copious tears that they symbolically pose a drowning threat of their own. In classic soap opera fashion the woman says via dialogue balloon: "I don't care! I'd rather sink than call Brad for help!"

During this period, Lichtenstein began using the Ben-Day dots associated with commercial printing practices. In "Hot Dog with Mustard" (1963), that food advertisement-evocative image is set against a Ben-Day dot-patterned background.

The artist's various Ben-Day dot-reliant series in this breakthrough decade include a series devoted to fighter planes in action. This particular series presumably reflects both Lichtenstein's military service during World War II and the then-escalating Vietnam War.

In "Whaam!" (1963), the pilot flying on the left side of this billboard-sized painting says, "I pressed the fire control ... and ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky." Indeed, the right side of the painting shows red and yellow flames bursting from an airplane that has been hit.

Although Lichtenstein's art-making method typically relies on paint application so flat and smooth that it resembles how a billboard painter would do it, he's actually always shown an interest in occasionally using thicker and more gestural strokes.

In "Brushstrokes" (1965), for instance, the subject matter consists entirely of horizontal and vertical bands of red paint applied with such zest that some of the red paint is dripping down a black-and-white Ben-Day dot background. The lower left corner of this composition features a hand holding a red paint-covered brush. This painting is not autobiographical in a detailed way, but it does deal with the life of a painter.

Lichtenstein increasingly made paintings that either referred to his own immediate world, as in a 1974 "Artist's Studio" series, or paid homage to painters who influenced him. Pablo Picasso's style is emulated in "Cubist Still Life" (1974) and Henri Matisse is emulated in "Still Life with Goldfish" (1972).

Constantly working variations on other styles and, for that matter, his own, Lichtenstein painted a final series, "Landscapes in the Chinese Style," in which he puts his own spin on traditional Chinese landscape painting.

In one of the finest of these paintings, "Treetops Through the Fog" (1996), Lichtenstein depicts fog-shrouded trees and mountains by having his distinctive Ben-Day dots dissolve into a misty whiteness.

"Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective" runs through Jan. 13 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Call 202-737-4215 or go to http://www.nga.gov.