Roy Lichtenstein's Playful Visions Show Artist's Serious Side: Corcoran Exhibit Is Filled with Sparkle

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If you need a summer pickup, go see Roy Lichtenstein's snap-crackle-and-pop sculpture retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The art's energy and sheer fun seem to burst the gallery's walls.

It was Mr. Lichtenstein (1923-1997) who, with other pop artists Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, seized images from America's consumer culture and made them acceptable as fine art. Mr. Warhol grabbed soup cans from supermarket shelves, and Mr. Lichtenstein appropriated comic book and cartoon illustrations. Along the way, they became the darlings of the 1960s New York art world.

Fast forward to 1999, and this five-decade survey of Mr. Lichtenstein's sculptural work, which is even more exciting than his paintings. Surprisingly, it is the first exhibit to explore the artist's sculpture in depth.

For starters, admire the sleek, Lichtenstein-decorated BMW 320i rally car, displayed in the gallery's graceful rotunda space. The "Lichtenstein Art Car" actually competed in the 24-hour road rally in Le Mans, France, in 1977, able to reach speeds of 160 mph.

Mr. Lichtenstein did not race the car himself, of course, but typically invested it with the headlong speed and dash of our times. He embellished it with his signature Benday dots. (He mimicked a mechanical reproductive printing process with the dots.) He added forward-thrusting green landscapes and yellow sunrises that seem to hurtle the car forward. The car embodies the immediate zest of the art and his signature playfulness. It shows this pop artist's passion for life, which ended all too suddenly when he died of pneumonia two years ago.

The artist loved visual puns, such as this extraordinary car. Nothing was too humble for his now-you-see-it, now-you-don't optical games, and he used tables, lamps, glasses, goldfish bowls, mirrors and more in having fun with his viewers.

Consider his ceramic heads of girls. One, from 1964, is among the first works of the show. He began with ordinary fashion mannequins, applied plaster or clay, then painted them as he would have his canvases.

He brushed on Benday dots and used heavy black lines around the lips, eyebrows, eyes and curves of the hair of this blond babe. She would have been gorgeous, but Mr. Lichtenstein made her look as if she just might have measles. This was just the beginning of his playing with two and three dimensions, with flatness and rounded forms.

Mr. Lichtenstein spoofed not only social and fashion mores, but also what other artists said of their styles. To do this, he followed up his comic-strip paintings with a series of paintings titled "Brushstrokes," designed to make fun of the abstract expressionists' claims to spontaneity.

Those paintings evolved into one of his most wonderful and witty sculpture series, in which he showed that cast metal could, indeed, simulate the free flow of brush and paints.

One from the series is his enormous, cast-aluminum "Brushstroke Group," placed outside the Corcoran, where it regularly stops traffic at 17th Street and New York Avenue NW.

In another, mounted on the Corcoran's grand staircase, Mr. Lichtenstein twisted colorfully painted metal for what he called a "Brushstroke Nude." It is a sculpture in that it occupies 3-D space, and visitors can walk around it. But the artist patterned the surfaces and edges with jagged metal to also make it look like a painting.

In others, he stood sculpted paintbrushes on their ends, with paint dripping from the bristles. It is sometimes hard to believe these "paintbrushes" with their dangling paint globules, are not actual brushes and pigment.

But they are hard metals, intractable materials Mr. Lichtenstein transformed into lilting dance forms that can stretch, jump and bend. It is almost as if he had created them with a quick flick of his wrist, rather than going through the laborious sculpture-casting process. …