“I have always had this interest in a purely American mythological subject matter.”
E nigmatic and theatrical, blazing colours radiating from meticulously painted Ben-Day dots, Reflections: Mystical Painting (1989) is a quintessential example from Roy Lichtenstein’s important series, Reflections Paintings (1988-1993) in which the artist continues his interrogation of perception and the abstract nature of reality. Lichtenstein presents the image as if viewed through a glass frame, using diagonal strips that slice through the canvas to suggest the reflection and refraction of light, urging the viewer to make sense of its various fragments. Fastidiously executed in the comic strip aesthetic for which Lichtenstein became known, Reflections: Mystical Painting immediately engages the viewer in the narrative of the work, with the artist’s love for moments of high drama exemplified by the gaping mouth yelling into the pointillist ether. Significantly, the present work has been featured on the October 1989 cover of the high-profile international contemporary art magazine, Flash Art, which was subsequently included in Maurizio Cattelan’s sculptural work, Strategies (1990)—a house of cards composed entirely by Flash Art magazines—testament to Reflections: Mystical Painting’s powerful visual appeal and its importance in both art history and popular culture.
Lichtenstein’s Reflections Paintings exemplify the artist’s interest in the notion of perception and reproducing the ephemeral, having previously incorporated reflections in his early Pop works, Modern paintings and most markedly in his Mirror series (1969-1972). In his Mirror series, Lichtenstein employs his characteristic Ben-Day dot aesthetic—a common commercial printing technique in which small dots of colour are used to create areas of shading and varied tonal hues—to reproduce the image of mirrors as found in mirror catalogues and the media, formulating a distinct visual strategy for the imitation of reflections. Lichtenstein describes: “My first mirror paintings didn’t really look like mirrors to people. It required a little learning to make them understandable as mirrors. I think the same thing was true of the brushstroke paintings. I like to make very concrete symbols for ephemeral things. Reflections, for example” (the artist cited in “An Interview with Roy Lichtenstein”, in Roy Lichtenstein Graphic Work: 1970-1980, New York, 1981, n.p., reprinted in Diane Waldman, Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1993, p. 183). Using diagonal stripes of gradating dots and wedges of colour, Lichtenstein successfully captures the wave-like effect of reflections and the appearance of light, establishing his own ‘concrete symbol’ that he went on to incorporate in his Reflections Paintings.
Roy Lichtenstein | Reflections: Mystical Painting
“It started when I tried to photograph a print by Robert Rauschenberg that was under glass. But the light from a window reflected on the surface of the glass and prevented me from taking a good picture. But it gave me the idea of photographing fairly well-known works under glass, where the reflections would hide most of the work, but you could still make out what the subject was...I started this series of Reflections on various early works of mine...It portrays a painting under glass. It is framed and the glass is preventing you from seeing the painting. Of course, the reflections are just an excuse to make an abstract work, with the cartoon image being supposedly partly hidden by the reflections.”
In Reflections: Mystical Painting, Lichtenstein presents a comic strip scene, obscured in part by the Mirror motif of black dots that slashes through the right-side of the composition. As such, the viewer perceives the painting as if placed under a glass frame, compelled to interact with the image to make sense of its hidden sections. Master of the melodramatic, Lichtenstein often chose to reproduce climactic moments from comic strips in his oeuvre, selecting an amalgam of suspenseful imagery, symbols and characters from popular culture that he would edit and recompose to enhance the emotional potential of the work. As compellingly argued by Graham Bader, the illusory effect of the glass barrier serves to create distance between the viewer and the work and intensify the inherent narrative and emotions: “[The paintings] foreground their beholders’ separation from the content they present. The series illustrates not the deep space of mirror illusion but impenetrable surface laid bare by reflected light. Lichtenstein accentuates the blockage by deploying his reflective streaks over particularly loaded or emotionally charged scenes” (Graham Bader, Roy Lichtenstein Reflected, Exh. Cat., Mitchell, Innes & Nash, New York, 2011, p. 49).
Here, the artist intensifies the drama of the scene by magnifying the face of a screaming superhero, focusing on his cavernous mouth, placing the portrait at a diagonal angle and cropping its edges with razor-sharp points that mimic the triangular wedges of colour, lines and dots that whizz around him. The vivid hues of tangy yellow, ultramarine blue, pine green and crimson red complement and contrast, adding to the heightened dynamism and vitality of the scene. In the upper-left quadrant on the painting, Lichtenstein’s superhero yells out in distress, the force of which almost quivers from the surface. Perhaps the image of X-Men’s Cyclops character who is depicted wearing similar yellow goggles and a royal blue suit in early Marvel comic books, the direction of the protagonist’s head guides the viewer’s gaze to the pyramid on the right, highly ambiguous in its depiction as either falling to the ground or soaring up into the air. The puzzling imagery and snippet of text both intrigue the viewer, teasing understanding from prolonged contemplation of the work, and reinforce the painting’s nature as ‘mystical’, presenting an exciting spectacle of the supernatural.
“I had been interested in the comic strip as a visual medium for a long time before I actually used it in a painting. This technique is a perfect example of an industrial process that developed as a direct result of the need for inexpensive and quick colour-printing. These printed symbols attain perfection in the hands of commercial artists through the continuing idealisation of the image made compatible with commercial considerations. Each generation of illustrators makes modifications and reinforcements of these symbols, which then become part of the vocabulary of all. The result is an impersonal form. In my own work, I would like to bend this toward a new classicism”
Roy Lichtenstein is a pioneering figure in Pop art, using images from comic books, advertising and popular culture to push the boundaries of what was considered fine art. Adopting the dot pattern found in comic illustrations and printed media, Lichtenstein replicates the mechanical process of printing by hand, achieving highly-finished, wondrous visions that startle and beguile the viewer. Liechtenstein’s Reflections series significantly draws on elements and techniques from his earlier paintings and his understanding of art history to create a mature, self-reflexive body of work, examples of which can be found in The Broad Museum, Los Angeles; Tate Modern, London; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco; National Gallery, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven; and Israel Museum, Jerusalem. A preeminent example from the series, Reflections: Mystical Painting transcends traditional distinction between high art and mass culture, establishing Lichtenstein’s status as an influential, iconic figure in the canon of art history.
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Tate ModernWhaam!, 1963, oil and magna on canvas, Tate Modern, London © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
San Francisco Museum of Modern ArtReflections: Whaaam!, 1990, oil and magna on canvas, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
National Gallery, Hamburger BahnhofReflections On "The Artist's Studio", 1989, oil and magna on canvas, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, National Gallery in the Hamburger Bahnhof, Marx Collection © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
《Reflections on “The Artist’s Studio”》，1989年作，油彩與瑪格納涂料畫布，柏林，Hamburger Bahnhof博物館，Marx珍藏
The BroadReflections: VIP! VIP!, 1989, oil and magna on canvas, The Broad, Los Angeles © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
《Reflections: VIP! VIP!》，1989年作，油彩與瑪格納塗料畫布，洛杉磯，布羅德博物館
Yale University Art GalleryReflections on the Gift, 1990, oil and magna on canvas, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
《Reflections on the Gift》，1990年作，油彩與瑪格納塗料畫布，新天堂，耶魯大學美術館
The BroadReflections on "Interior with Girl Drawing", 1990, oil and magna on canvas, The Broad, Los Angeles © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
《Reflections on “Interior with Girl Drawing”》，1990年作，油彩與瑪格納塗料畫布，洛杉磯，布羅德博物館