Part parody of his earlier work and part reinvention, Roy Lichtenstein's Reflections on the Prom belongs to a celebrated group of works that convey the notion that all of life and art are a series of illusions and reflections. The large scale painting hints at a comic book-inspired narrative, and yet leaves much to the viewer's imagination, its narrative qualities complicated by its fractured, multi-layered imagery.
Throughout his career, Lichtenstein continually based his paintings on materials sourced from popular culture and the mass media, creating resolutely figurative, even prosaic images that are thoroughly ironic in their tone. There is an added sense of humor, then, in Lichtenstein's Reflection series, produced between 1988 and 1990, in which he reused his own motifs as Pop artists might quote found imagery. Just as Warhol mined his back catalogue of images in his Reversals paintings of the late 1970s-early 1980s as a means of scrutinizing his own status as an art world phenomenon, Lichtenstein's retrospective view of his past themes were, in part, a recognition that his work had become part of this collective mass of visual culture. For this group of paintings, Lichtenstein repeatedly drew on his own iconic Pop and comic images: the blonde girl, the war comic, the brushstroke, as well as his images of mirrors. As the artist himself pointed out, 'All my art is in some way about other art, even if the other art is cartoons' (Lichtenstein, quoted in J. Hendrickson, Roy Lichtenstein, Cologne 2000, frontispiece).
Executed in 1990, Reflections on the Prom further personifies Pop's self-referentiality, by revisiting the couples in romantic crisis that shocked the public in the 1960s and helped establish him as a major art innovator in painting. For his early works, Lichtenstein would most often select a single comic frame for reproduction, but here, his sophisticated adaptation of this material heightens the sense of melodrama and creates an unusual narrative sequence. Fractured as if reflected on shards of broken glass, the painter depicts two separate, though related scenes. Typically, the female is the protagonist of the couple in the main frame, glancing up from her partner's embrace as if she were lost in interior contemplation - a caricature of America's anxiety-ridden teen-age girls and women in the cheap comic strips Lichtenstein used as source material. Juxtaposed with image in the upper left corner of a blonde woman with apparently the same male figure, the brunette's thoughtful expression takes on added meaning, hinting at infidelity or jealousy.
In Reflections on the Prom, Lichtenstein problematises the reading of this image by integrating images from his original comic strip appropriations with his system of codes for mirrors. In tone and motif, the painting seems a nostalgic reflection of the themes found in the earlier period of his career, but it is brought up to date through the addition of the "Reflection" device; that is, the flat, diagonal, color bands that simulate reflected light. Although Lichtenstein had explored the topic of reflection through virtually his entire career, it was only in the late 1980s that he juxtaposed the "Reflection" sign with the three-dimensional, sensuous world on a flat plane.
Reflections on the Prom is a culmination of the artist's lifelong preoccupation with the fiction of representation. Lichtenstein's calculated adaptations of cartoon images are a reminder that the simple surface of things does not necessarily correspond to or "reflect" a complex reality. In addition to his characteristic replication of the Ben Day dot system used by printers, Lichtenstein's method of splicing the composition with reflective streaks further dematerializes his subject matter, flattening it into the picture plane. This simulated reflection is a conceit Lichtenstein started using in the Mirror series from 1969 to 1971 where he produced works based on advertisements for mirrors in retail catalogs. Depicting a blank reflection, the Mirror works are among the artist's most abstract. Stripping down his subject matter, Lichtenstein used the series to concentrate on the formal aspects of painting and to study the various magnifications of light and optical distortions of shapes on the mirror surface: "it enable[d] him to unleash a new range of inventive bravura, a heightened exploitation of spatial effects, and a new freedom in suggesting illusion" (E. Baker, "The Glass of Fashion and the Mold of Form" in J. Coplans, ed., Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1972, p. 179). In an interview with Michael Kimmelman Lichtenstein said, "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" (R. Lichtenstein quoted in M. Kimmelman, "Roy Lichtenstein at the Met," Portraits, Talking with Artists at the Met, the Modern, The Louvre and elsewhere, New York Times, 31 March 1995, p. C1). By combining this sense of reflection with narratively suggestive, flat illustrations in Reflections on the Prom, Lichtenstein both highlights the fact that his painting made up only of dots and lines and that it is impossible to resist applying meaning to pictorial illusions.