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Banal ideas give way to great art

November 22, 2002|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Roy Lichtenstein's abstract paintings at Gagosian Gallery offer an eloquent argument against the seemingly sensible idea that great art comes from great ideas. Just the opposite is true of the Pop artist's "Perfect and Imperfect" series, which begins with an idea so simplistic that it can only be described as dumb.

The exhibition's 14 canvases and 20 drawings follow the same recipe. Start with a rectangle, either horizontal or vertical. Pick a point on its perimeter and draw a diagonal line to another side. Without picking up your pencil, do this again. And again and again, from five to 12 times. The last line must take you back to the starting point.

Then fill in most of the spaces between the lines. Use solid colors, diagonal stripes or dots.

The only difference between Lichtenstein's "Perfect" and "Imperfect" works is that the latter include a triangle or two that extend beyond the edge of the original rectangle. This little gesture transforms an ordinary four-sided canvas into a shaped painting. It also suggests that Lichtenstein (1923-1997) got carried away -- that his ricocheting pencil went too fast to stop before breaking out of the image.

That's an illusion. These paintings are among the most controlled of his exceptionally deliberate oeuvre. He made three in 1978; the rest are from 1986-88. (Nearly all were borrowed from the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation and are not for sale.) They embody such a surplus of linear mastery, coloristic nuance and formal refinement that they turn a dumb idea into a springboard to experiences of joyous exuberance.

There's nothing unsophisticated about the pleasures they deliver. In many, buoyancy, verve and clarity pirouette around each other, bouncing your eye around the picture plane with more animated energy than a movie jam-packed with special effects.

To see Lichtenstein's drawings (made with colored pencils on ordinary sheets of graph paper) alongside his paintings is to see his mind in action. Designs are refined, compositions balanced and contrasts sharpened. Only a handful of his studies match the paintings executed from them. The rest reveal changes he made as he translated his dynamic patterns from paper to canvas, adjusting the thickness of a line, altering the color of a triangle or shifting the angle of a shape's edge.

There's a flexibility to his art that suggests he loves rules for the exceptions they make possible. One of the most fascinating pieces is one of the "Perfect" paintings, made of sheets of patterned fabric he stitched together. It's the only one in which Lichtenstein's line changes direction in the middle of the image, not once but twice. In three others, a gentle arc appears, throwing a curve of relaxation into the otherwise straightforward geometry.

In a newly expanded upstairs gallery (designed by Richard Meier & Partners) stands a small sculpture. Bringing Lichtenstein's acrobatic lines off the wall and into the same space viewers occupy, this piece of steel punctuates a magnificent exhibition by looking as if it, too, is about to make a gravity-defying leap.

Gagosian Gallery, 456 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 271-9400, through Dec. 7. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Monumental paintings, done with a light touch

Sean Scully's massive paintings, some of which are as big as the walls in most homes, tower over viewers with seemingly monumental authority. But there's something intimate about the 57-year-old painter's abstract compositions, each of which is made up of rectangular slabs of warm color stacked atop one another like blocks of concrete. These approachable, unexpectedly forgiving works use the larger-than-life-size scale of architecture to make a place for sensitivity, delicacy and loveliness -- typically feminine attributes that often embarrass artists who are afraid they'll make fools of themselves if they don't put on a tough front.

At L.A. Louver Gallery, Scully's first solo show on the West Coast in 10 years includes six works on paper, three suites of photographs, eight oils on linen and an enormous four-part painting. "Four Dark Mirrors" doesn't dominate the main gallery so much as suffuse the stark space with sensuous color and rhythmic movement.

Each of its four parts is a diptych that measures 11 by 8 feet. Each half contains from four to seven alternating horizontal bands of two rich hues, such as navy blue and gold, crimson and ivory, or deep forest green and silvery white. The striped sleeves of rugby jerseys come to mind, as does the luxuriant palette of tastefully renovated Old World hotels.

But what's most impressive about Scully's huge painting is the up-and-down thrust it sets into motion. Imagine the pistons of an eight-cylinder engine slowed down to a glacial pace and you'll have a sense of the steady movement pulsing through the painting. To stand back and take it all in is to see that the Irish painter has transformed right-angled geometry into fluid, serpentine swaying.

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