So Very Dotty

Hey, watch out! Oops! Ever get a lesson in perception -- the hard way? If so, you know things aren't always as they seem, objects in the mirror are sometimes closer than they appear, and you can't always trust your eyes -- all information that should enhance your appreciation of "Roy Lichtenstein: Inside/Outside," currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Best known for his primary-colored, comic-strip-inspired paintings employing the Ben Day dots cartoonists use, Lichtenstein (1923-1997) was part of a group of artists -- including Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, and Jim Dine -- who in the early Sixties were lumped together by critics as part of the Pop Art movement. But there's more to Lichtenstein and his work than meets the eye. Or rather, what meets the eye is the precisely placed point of his work. As painter/sculptor Frank Stella once said, "What you see is what you see."

And there's plenty to see at the Lichtenstein exhibition, originally scheduled to open simultaneously with the infamous Art Basel (now you see it, now you don't) and with the restoration and rededication of Mermaid, the artist's first public sculpture, which has adorned Miami Beach's Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts since 1979. Curated by MoCA director Bonnie Clearwater in collaboration with the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, the show delves into the powerful-though-vulnerable link between the external and internal: perception. Packed with 100 or so bold and colorful representations from Lichtenstein's 50-plus-year career, it offers more than enough to satisfy an afternoon's leisurely stroll for the casual observer and plenty -- video, process-revealing notes and sketches, early abstract works, sculptures, the better-known paintings, copious exhibition commentary, a thesis, and a hefty catalogue by Clearwater -- to quench the thirst of art students and Lichtenstein lovers for weeks on end.

A private man who kept his life as orderly and unified as the dots and lines in his paintings, Lichtenstein was born in New York. His careerlong adherence to the science and psychology of perception, explains the exhibition catalogue, was inspired by painter and engineer Hoyt L. Sherman, his mentor at Ohio State University, where Lichtenstein received his undergraduate and graduate art degrees and taught until 1951. Sherman, a leader in the study of perception, created OSU's Visual Demonstration Center in 1948, addressing the effect of distance, size, overlay, point of view, and expectancy (among other things) on the way we see the world, factors that Lichtenstein played with constantly. "He seemed particularly keen for the viewer to step into his shoes and see his works from his own position," Clearwater's essay offers.

In 1965, proving he was experimenting with yet another form of perception -- that of the public -- Lichtenstein said: "I think the formal statements in my work will become clearer in time." Or, as Clearwater states in her catalogue, "[Lichtenstein] clearly had hope for the future, when the Pop references would become so obscure as to render them irrelevant, enabling viewers to grasp the abstract organization of his work." And we thought Seurat knew a lot about dots.