“How does a mirror, the reproduction of a mirror on canvas, reflecting nothing you can name, become the subject of a series of paintings? It is in the sequence of painting, window, mirror, frame that we can see a capsule account of Modernism’s concerns and premises. The window frames the scene and the mirror stands for this century’s chosen subject matter: human concerns held up close to the frame.”
I n Roy Lichtenstein’s supreme Mirror Pair from 1971-72, black and white accent lines coalesce to suggest the beveled edges of glass while repeating swathes of uniform Ben-Day dots—blue in one canvas, black in the other—hint at the existence of a solid, uniform surface. The two canvases placed side by side as a diptych recall religious iconography, also referenced in notable contemporary works by Andy Warhol and Frank Stella. Between 1969 and 1971, Roy Lichtenstein painted approximately 50 mirrors of varying sizes, shapes, and colors. His visual inspiration for the series ranged from catalogue illustrations to store brochures from New York merchants selling cut glass and mirrors on the gritty city streets. A self-proclaimed “image duplicator,” Lichtenstein was fascinated by the flat, air-brushed quality of these advertisement images and was captivated by the irony that these printed mirrors reflected nothing at all. Crafting the painted illusion of a mirror with meticulously applied colors, lines, and Ben-Day dots on the surfaces of shaped canvases, Lichtenstein’s mirrors are intentionally elusive and abstract, ultimately steeped in the irony of his iconic Pop aesthetic.
With its regular geometric forms and repeating construction, Mirror Pair is closely related to Lichtenstein’s contemporaneous series of Entablatures, in which he produced scrolling horizontal paintings and drawings of the titular architectural element. Walking down the streets of New York in the 1970s, Lichtenstein was inspired by the irony and symbolic potency of these simple decorative motifs. Plucked from the world of Classical art, the modern-day entablature offers an easy, prepackaged way to conjure the imperial stateliness of antiquity through design—even if the entablature in question had actually been mass-produced in an industrial factory. Lichtenstein was fascinated by this idea of the artistic motif as a signifier and a vessel for cultural meaning. Like the Entablatures, the Mirror series explores the dichotomy of universality and ephemerality between which visual symbols tread the line.
"Mirrors are flat objects that have surfaces you can’t easily see since they’re always reflecting what’s around them. There’s no simple way to draw a mirror, so cartoonists invented dashed or diagonal lines to signify ‘mirror’. Now, you see those lines and you know it means ‘mirror’ even though there are obviously no such lines in reality. If you put horizontal, instead of diagonal lines across the same object, it wouldn’t say ‘mirror’. It’s a convention that we unconsciously accept."
Similar to his interest in the Greco-Roman entablature, Lichtenstein was undoubtedly fascinated by the use of the mirror as an enigmatic symbol throughout the history of painting, from Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, to Édouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, to Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas. The aforementioned artists incorporated mirrors into their respective compositions as a device to suggest the presence of actions occurring beyond their frames. In doing so, they heightened the illusion of painting as a reflection of reality, a motive adopted by Lichtenstein in his own mirror works. Underscoring the critical importance of this series, other examples of Lichtenstein’s early mirror paintings reside in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Broad, Los Angeles; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
“With his genius for steering the history of high art into the lowest depth of popular art and then triumphing over the collision, Lichtenstein was destined to take on one of the loftiest motifs of Western painting, the mirror.”