CHUCH MYERS Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service
Section: LIFE & LEISURE,  Page: C1

Date: Monday, November 21, 1994


Welcome to the world of Roy Lichtenstein. For nearly four decades, this master of pop art has stood with his colorful palate and paintbrush somewhere near the forefront of American culture, creating lively renditions of everything from American heroes and commercial icons to vivid abstract interpretations.

Known for his larger-than-life cartoon strip imagery, Lichtenstein's creative sensibilities have hardly been restricted to the painted canvas. He has had an equally prolific career working with printmaking.

At the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., an exhibition of 90 of his prints recently opened, detailing Lichtenstein's broad interests in printmaking's creative avenues.

With an ability to mass-produce an image and reach a wide audience, printmaking enjoyed a rebirth among artists as the pop art movement gained momentum during the early 1960s.

Lichtenstein, however, was ahead of the curve.

His printmaking work started out modestly enough. He produced his first lithograph and woodcut in 1948 while a graduate student at Ohio State University. Not long after, he began to experiment with combining different printing techniques.

``Ten Dollar Bill,'' a lithograph made in 1956 and his first pop art image of any kind, is among the works on view at the National Gallery.

As he continued to develop his understanding of printmaking, Lichtenstein moved from creating caricatures of medieval knights, Indians and animals seen here in 14 rare early prints to producing wonderful plays on illusion and depth. His soothing ``Moonscape'' (1965) shows a full-moon evening sky seemingly reflected in the soft ripples of a water's surface.

Although the exhibit underscores Lichtenstein's diverse printing interests and abilities, he always will be most closely associated with the dots, strips and wit of his colorful cartoon works plenty of which are found here.

``SWEET DREAMS BABY!'' as ``POW!'' flies a fist.

``THE MELODY HAUNTS MY REVERIE . . .'' croons the melancholy blond in ``Reverie.''

Both of these cartoons, produced as screenprints, are among nearly a dozen in the show. They once were part of the 11 Pop Artists portfolios, a collection of pop graphic art that toured the United States in the mid-1960s.

While Lichtenstein has enjoyed great success with cartoons, he points out that he hardly is an expert on the newsprint make-believe worlds of heroes, villains and lovers. (Some critics have suggested he simply stole and copied cartoonists' images and blew them up.)

``When I did pop art in the '60s, there were people who really were experts on cartoons and would talk to me, and gee, I didn't know anything,'' recalled the 71-year-old artist with a smile during an interview here. ``I read them as a child, but it wasn't really a big thing with me.''

Beyond its flat confines, printmaking provided a vehicle in which Lichtenstein could

take the two-dimensional concept and give it a three-dimensional identity.

For example, a yellow triangle covered with black polka-dots becomes a free-standing pyramid when folded.

Going a step further, Lichtenstein took the notion of a flowing paintbrush stroke and gave it a sculptural context as a birch veneer seat and ottoman.

``The brush stroke is more of an idea, and barely exists in two-dimension, and the sculpture becomes a salute to painting,'' said Lichtenstein.

As pop art reached its apex in the late '60s, Lichtenstein created his own variations on themes long found in work of past art masters.

``Those artists did somebody else's work in their own style. Picasso did many people. I suppose at the time it looked like a kind of vernacular version . . . but they weren't exactly homage or meant to put down the art of the past,'' explained the soft-spoken artist. ``It was just his version of art, and that's what this is.''

In a very real sense, Lichtenstein's work has today become the source for new artistic versions. From hotel accommodations to shock absorbers, a pop art movement rooted in commercial art has come full circle, as art, particularly in the advertising world, which often bears its own distinct similarities to Lichtenstein's inspired style.

``The Prints of Roy Lichtenstein'' was organized by Ruth E. Fine, National Gallery curator of modern prints and drawings, and will remain on view here through Jan. 8, 1995. It then travels to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in February, and the Dallas Museum of Art in May.

The National Gallery of Art is on Constitution Avenue between 7th and 3rd streets, N.W. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is free.