In Like New, Lichtenstein features a two-part diptych that he arranges within a hinged frame. Placed side-by-side, the two panels display an almost perfect symmetry, except for the sizable hole that seems to have been burned into the surface of the otherwise matching screen. Looking closer, the viewer discovers that Lichtenstein’s rendering is composed of a flawless scrim of perfectly rendered Ben-Day dots, which, by their unique optical effects, work in tandem to convey the illusion of the screen door’s mesh grid. Peering along the singed edges of the gaping hole, the brilliance of Lichtenstein’s technique comes to the fore, as one discovers that he has rendered the uneven and fraying edges of the hole by simply grouping together a thicker accumulation of dots. Nestled in such a tight arrangement, the dots are bent, squeezed and distorted, and this differs from the crisp uniformity of the rest of the illustration. In the right panel, Lichtenstein allows his fascination with the mechanically-produced Ben-Day dots to culminate in a symphony of uninterrupted dots. Rather than look mechanical or machine-made, however, Lichtenstein subtly varies his presentation in order to present more nuance. He depicts the subtle undulations and surface irregularities of the actual screen mesh by slightly varying the placement of dots, arranging some in diagonal rows and others along a different axis. The resulting image straddles the curious line between the realism of its representation and sheer abstract design, as it oscillates back and forth between the thing it depicts and allover abstraction.
1962 marks a breakthrough year for Lichtenstein, when the fundamental attributes of his Pop art style crystalized into its mature form. At the time, Lichtenstein was creating a series of black-and-white paintings of common household objects, using simple, crisp black outlines and Ben-Day dots, along with some of his earliest comic book paintings. This moment marks the beginning of Lichtenstein’s interest in replicating the look of the half-tone printing process, in which he appropriated the Ben-Day dots for his own purposes. Rather than copy his source image verbatim, Lichtenstein always made subtle adjustments, and in Like New, Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day dots are used to illustrate a series of events (a feature that is replicated in comic-book panels). They provide a sense of chronological action or passing time from one panel to the next, and Lichtenstein seems fascinated by the deliberately limited visual format of the two-part structure. In the first image, the viewer is able to see through the opening in the damaged screen, while in the second, our vision is blocked. It is only upon further consideration that the viewer discovers that the illusion of seeing through the broken screen is but an illusory trick. That which is revealed by the hole in the screen is simply the bare canvas itself, and the entire process repeats itself in a tantalizing loop.
Like New was acquired shortly after it was created by the art historian Robert Rosenblum, an astute observer of Pop art whose intellect was matched only by the warmth of his personality and his refined eye. Rosenblum wrote a seminal article on Lichtenstein’s work in 1963 that lent validity and strength to the artist’s already burgeoning career. In 2002, Rosenblum literally wrote the book on Lichtenstein’s black-and-white paintings, which he praised as “hilarious and unsettling.” (Robert Rosenblum, New York, Gagosian Gallery, Exh. Cat., Roy Lichtenstein: Early Black and White Paintings, 2002, p. 13) In his description of Like New, Rosenblum believed that Lichtenstein based his depiction on a dry-cleaners advertisement for restoring clothing that had been accidentally burned by a cigarette, making it a curious relic of a bygone era in which smoking was still fashionable. He wrote: “In Like New, the before-and-after demonstrations of American advertising are transformed into a painting whose abstract qualities are more explicit than usual in Lichtenstein’s work...There could hardly be a better example of Lichtenstein’s ability to re-create the tawdry visual environment of commercial imagery as an extraordinary abstract invention.” (Robert Rosenblum, “Roy Lichtenstein and the Realist Revolt,” 1963; reprinted in On Modern American Art: Selected Essays By Robert Rosenblum, New York, 1999, pp. 195-6) Indeed, Like New is a brilliant embodiment of the artist's astute observations on the mechanics of visual representation and its real-world counterparts, making it an important relic from a seminal moment in Pop art history.
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