Roy Lichtenstein mirror perception pictogram abstraction

Lichtenstein Mirror as print version (PDF with illus. 4.720 KB)

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Roy Lichtenstein: Mirror (1972)

in: Sammlungskatalog Fondation Beyeler. Neuzugänge 1998-2003, Riehen/Basel/Wolfratshausen 2003, p. 36-37.

Lichtenstein’s paintings have a decidedly conceptual side that raises questions relating to the perception and depiction of objects. They attempt to reach the point at which intrinsically meaningless, stereotyped visual signs give rise to objective recognition. This is the reason for Lichtenstein’s interest in cartoons. In them he discovered a visual language in which the tension between abstracted visual symbols and drastic objectivity is at a maximum. He was also intrigued by the way in which comic-strip artists find powerful visual formulae even for phenomena that are hardly depictable, like explosions or rays of light. For Lichtenstein, comics were a prime example of the fact that successful representation need not depend on naturalistic means of depiction, but could result from habituation to certain visual conventions. His series of “Mirrors” likely represents the theme of representation and perception in its most condensed form. This is due not least to the subject itself, the mirror, which since Plato has been viewed as a metaphor for the illusionistic nature of painting. A mirror shows reality exactly as it is. As an object, it recedes behind the changing images it reflects, itself remaining practically invisible. Lichtenstein’s Mirror, in contrast, seems to reflect nothing outside it. It manages the trick of showing not a reflected object but the process of reflection itself. This pictorial solution was not easy to find. It took some time, Lichtenstein said, to achieve something that would be a sufficiently interesting abstract image and at the same time could be read as a mirror. These two aspects – abstract painting and depiction of a mirror – stand in an extremely tense relationship to one another. We see a pattern of dots and different colored bands, which in no way resemble a mirror yet nevertheless convey an impression of one. The Ben Day dots, Lichtenstein’s trademark, make this especially clear. A technical device used in printing to reproduce halftones and mixed colors, they have the same effect here, where dark blue dots on a white ground evoke a shaded light blue. At the same time, the great enlargement of the dot pattern and its gradual diminution in size produce a flickering effect, which optically transform the flat surface into an evocation of an indeterminate, light-flooded space that appears reflected in the mirror. Fact and effect, patterned surface and illusion of depth, the materiality of the picture and the immateriality of its appearance, are played off against each other and thus become simultaneously perceptible. We are put in a position, as it were, of being able to observe our process of perception as it translates visual information into objective recognition. If “seeing” normally means seeing “something as something,” Lichtenstein draws out the “as” to the point that it becomes visible as a process. Mirror resembles a mirror, but only in the sense that picture-puzzles resemble real things. It is virtually impossible to put our finger on the point in the image where the similarity on which recognition is based actually begins. The visual deception is further heightened by the artist’s choice of a format corresponding to that of an actual mirror. Mirror toys with being the thing itself. Yet this mirror does not reflect our likeness. All it reflects is a paradox of perception.

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Lichtenstein Mirror as print version (PDF with illus. 4.720 KB)