This work will appear in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
In Mirror #9 (36” diameter), Roy Lichtenstein tackles one of the most ineffable subjects in art history—that of the physical and philosophical nature of reflection and with this painting, Lichtenstein joins the pantheon of artistic greats—including van Eyck, Velásquez, Manet and Picasso—who have tackled this complex and difficult subject matter. Inspired by images of mirrors that he found in retail catalogues and newspapers, Lichtenstein uses his unique artistic language to break down the codes inherent in artistic communication to their essential elements. In his representation of the mirrored surface, he captures a fleeting image with his bold use of color and Ben-Day dots, all signature elements of classic Pop. Yet rather than examining the ephemera of popular culture, Lichtenstein goes further and explores the way in which images function within the broad mass of the populace, “It doesn’t look like a painting of something, the artist explained, “it looks like the thing itself” (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in J. Hendrickson, Roy Lichtenstein, Cologne, 2000, p. 68).
On this circular canvas, Lichtenstein displays the myriad of subtle variances that dance across the mirrored surface of the glass. A crescent-shaped passage of deep blue and black pigment occupies the right half of the canvas, suggesting the body or object which is displayed in the reflective surface of the glass. This effect is repeated in the opposite side of the mirror where Lichtenstein replicates the reflection by means of a thinner, semi-circular sliver of black pigment which accentuates the edge of the canvas. In between, the subtle gradations of a veil of signature Ben-Day dots that sweeps across the left half of the canvas, indicates the depths of shadows that this object leaves in its wake as it crosses in front of the mirror. Lichtenstein’s choice of color, and the density of his paint application suggests a substantial entity, yet the nature of reflection means that, in reality, the object might not be as significant as it appears here. All this leaves us with the mystery of what Lichtenstein is trying to depict here—is it the object and its reflection or just the nature of the reflection itself? Lichtenstein expertly captures the complicated laws of physics which deal with the refraction of light resulting in a painting of something so ostentatiously simple, yet also incredible complex.
Painted in 1972, Mirror #9 was produced less than a decade after Lichtenstein roared onto Pop art scene with his revolutionary paintings inspired by the romance comic novels of his youth. His artistic examination of the visual shorthand that flourished in the age of mass media immediately identify him as one of the leading members of the Pop generation and his Girl portraits, along with the likes of Andy Warhol’s Coca-Cola bottles and Campbell’s soup cans, came to define a generation. Like his Girl paintings, in Mirror #9 Lichtenstein has deconstructed not only the reality of the subject of the mirror, but also the artistic short-hand by which it is represented. “Mirrors are flat objects that have surfaces you can’t easily see since they’re always reflecting what’s around them,” Lichtenstein explained. “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, PORTAITS, Talking with Artists at the Met, The Modern, The Louvre and Elsewhere, reproduced at www.lichtensteinfoundation.org).
The success of paintings such as Mirror #9 relies on the inherent understanding we have built up to decode the cacophony of visual imagery that has developed ever since Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century. Lichtenstein learnt to decode this language whilst he was an art student at Ohio State University. Here he studied under the influential Professor Hoyt L. Sherman who believed that “Students must develop an ability to see familiar objects in terms of visual qualities, and they must develop this ability to the degree that old associations with such objects will have only a secondary or a submerged role during the seeing-and-drawing act” (H. L. Sherman, quoted by B. Rose, The Drawings of Roy Lichtenstein, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1987, p. 29). This theory of drawing was reinforced by Hoyt’ use of what he called his ‘flash room’ – a darkened room where images of objects were briefly flashed onto a screen for the students to copy. Teaching drawing in this manner proved to be extremely influential for Lichtenstein as it forced him to focus his attention on the most important visual aspects of the objects structure, and not to become distracted by extraneous matters such as unnecessary decoration. The vestiges of Sherman’s teaching can clearly be seen in Mirror #9, as not even the subject of the reflection is visible, merely the idea of a reflection as characterized by the artists arsenal of lines and dots.
Unusually for a Pop artist, the largely empty reflection in Mirror #9 is among the artist’s most abstract works. By stripping down his subject matter in this way, Lichtenstein used works in this 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).
The motif of the mirror as an aid to human introspection has made a regular appearance throughout the art historical canon. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Lichtenstein was brave enough to build upon what his forebears had mastered and infuse it into his own ideas. Therefore, Mirror #9, playfully contributes to centuries of dialogues with artists who sought to recreate the enigma of the mirror in paint. From Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait¸ 1434 (National Gallery, London), to Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez’ Las Meninas, 1656 (Museo Nacional del Prado), Édouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882 (Courtauld Institute of Art, London) and Pablo Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror, 1932 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), Lichtenstein interjects with his own contribution to the discussion about the importance of the subject matter.