Usually, the first thing you see as you climb the Corcoran Gallery of Art's grand staircase is the 19th-century marble nude "Venus" by Antonio Canova, hiding behind her drapery in the rotunda.
But Roy Lichtenstein's big, raucous, jampacked sculpture retrospective has taken over the museum for the summer. And one of his nudes now brazenly greets visitors halfway down the stairs. Twelve feet tall, brightly colored and with flowing hair, she's no Venus. Titled "Brushstroke Nude," she was fashioned from a twisted, cast-aluminum brush stroke, a Lichtenstein trademark.
And in the rotunda, where "Venus" usually resides, is an object of desire more appropriate to our times: a BMW 320i race car that is also a three-dimensional painting by Roy Lichtenstein.
This master of pop, who died suddenly of pneumonia two years ago at age 73, had no interest in seeing the race at Le Mans in which this "Art Car" actually ran and lost.
But he loved speed and high energy in his art, and his show is full of both.
A hat zooms through space in "Coup de Chapeau I," smacking a man and leaving a force field behind. Explosions pop off walls in layered metal reliefs, and countless bronze brush strokes teeter in space. An airplane in attack mode comes straight at you.
It wasn't the BMW itself but the reflections bouncing off its fast-moving, shiny surface that intrigued Lichtenstein, according to his wife, Dorothy. It's easy to believe: Reflected light flickers through this show.
Without actually seeing his "Mirrors" and "Gold Fish Bowls" and water glasses, it's hard to imagine how something as fluid and ephemeral as a reflection could be captured in open-work sculptures made of bronze. But that's only one of the playful contradictions at the heart of Lichtenstein's art.
He monumentalizes other fleeting phenomena: steam rising from a coffee cup or rays of light descending from a desk lamp. In "Woman: Sunlight, Moonlight," a two-sided bronze bust of a woman, blue moonbeams bathe one side of her face, yellow sunbeams the other.
You have to keep reminding yourself that these sculptures give you clues, but it's your perception that decodes them. This bust, for instance, reads like a three-dimensional object, but it's not. It's essentially flat, as are most of these sculptures, and made up of black metal lines in space. It also looks just like Lichtenstein's painted comic-strip cuties, made with black outlines and Benday dots.
The show covers the full chronological sweep of his sculptural output, starting with a few early wood and clay objects from the '40s and '50s (among them a "Gothic Warrior" and an "Indian Pappoos" (sic), carved from furniture parts). By the early '60s, he was painting cups and mannequin heads in his characteristic pop style.
But soon, he was making very formal and elegant, wholly abstract sculpture--and the occasional coffee table--that had the shiny brass-and-glass look of art deco. But there was humor even then: One hilarious piece, "Modern Sculpture With Velvet Rope," is a monumental snicker at the pompousness of an elaborate pair of brass stanchions, the sort that once kept people in line in movie palaces.
In the '70s, a flood of sculpture began, much of it based on subject matter he used in his paintings. But he also launched a series of gentle sendups of other people's art by capturing their essences in a few lines: Picasso's fractured faces, de Kooning's slashing brush strokes, Calder's whimsical mobiles. One Calder-inspired piece looks unmistakably like a mobile--it even casts shadows like a mobile. But it cannot move. Lichtenstein began to do a series of major commissions around the world--in Miami, Tokyo, Singapore and Barcelona--and most of the models, or maquettes, are here.
The most surprising objects in this sweeping retrospective are the last ones Lichtenstein produced: his monumental "House" series, huge, weighty works made of painted fiberglass. Perceptual wonders, they pop in and out of perspective as you walk by.
There's a maquette here for "House I," a full-scale work the National Gallery of Art acquired two years ago for its new sculpture garden. But there's an even more amazing "House II" mounted on a Corcoran wall. It has been seen only once before, at the last Venice Biennale.
Lichtenstein has played with our perception of three dimensions before, but never on this scale. In a way, they recall children's pop-up books. But these weigh more than 800 pounds.
This warmhearted show has invaded every part of the museum, spilling out into the street with a 32-foot-high "Brushstroke Group" at the corner of 17th Street and New York Avenue.
BMW supported the exhibition and paid to dismantle and ship the car so that it could be brought in through the Corcoran's front door and up the grand staircase to the rotunda by members of the BMW racing team.
"We made it by an inch, with the fenders, air scoops and bumper off," says Corcoran Chief Curator Jack Cowart, who organized this show. But his 18-year passion for Lichtenstein's work will not end here. Unfortunately for the Corcoran, Cowart will be leaving at the end of June to head the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation in New York.
Meanwhile, he's brought us yet another show that proves there's a good deal more to be learned about the work of this enduring, endearing artist.
The exhibition, the first comprehensive survey of the artist's sculpture, was organized with the fine arts museums of Mexico City and Monterrey, Mexico, and the estate of Roy Lichtenstein, which has lent most of the work. A handsome new 256-page book, the first on Lichtenstein's sculpture and related drawings and maquettes, will be available in the Corcoran Shop next week.
Roy Lichtenstein: Sculpture and Drawings, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 17th Street and New York Avenue NW, through Sept. 30. Admission: $6 for adults, $3 for students and seniors, $10 for families; children under 12 are free. Hours: daily except Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and until 9 p.m. on Thursday. Call 202-639-1700. The Web site address is www.corcoran.org
CAPTION: Lichtenstein's "Brushstroke Nude" greets visitors on the Corcoran's staircase.
CAPTION: An edge-on view of a fighter plane makes the viewer the target.
CAPTION: Reflections on a race car: Lichtenstein painted this BMW 320i, which competed at Le Mans, the way he saw light falling on it as it sped by.
CAPTION: A hat zooms about in "Coup de Chapeau I"; "House II," below, recalls a child's pop-up book but weighs more than 800 pounds.