Roy Lichtenstein,"Sweet Dreams, Baby!," 1965: Although inspired by the mass production of comic books, Lichtenstein always drew his Ben-Day dots — the pixels of the printing process used by comic books of the era — by hand. With one foot in “high art” methods and the other in “low art” imagery, the artist brought the two worlds together while pointing out the absurdity of their segregation. Pow! (Rstate of Roy Lichtenstein) Roy Lichtenstein,”Sweet Dreams, Baby!,” 1965:
Although inspired by the mass production of comic books, Lichtenstein always drew his Ben-Day dots — the pixels of the printing process used by comic books of the era — by hand. With one foot in “high art” methods and the other in “low art” imagery, the artist brought the two worlds together while pointing out the absurdity of their segregation. Pow! (Rstate of Roy Lichtenstein)

A Pop art collage of a giant Donald Duck head, an old family photo and lots of power tools — funny, odd, maybe a wry nod to consumerism, but hardly a Rembrandt, right?

“Pop art is much more layered and complex than people think,” says Joann Moser, curator of “Pop Art Prints” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “It serves as the mirror that exaggerates … reflecting the culture we live in back to us in the different way.”

Pop art works are indeed deeper and darker than their bold, flat appearances suggest. The artists, who were at their busiest in the 1960s, were inspired not only by advertising and popular culture, but also by the politically charged events of the era and the media that covered them.

Robert Indiana, "Love," 1967: Robert Indiana originally designed “Love” for a Christmas card in 1965; later, he made screen prints (shown below), sculptures and paintings of the image. Consumer culture spawned the work, which led to actual consumer products: Today, “Love” appears on T-shirts and knickknacks worldwide. “There was always a lot of back and forth between Pop art and advertising,” Moser says. (Morgan Art Foundation/Artists Rights Society) Robert Indiana, “Love,” 1967: Robert Indiana originally designed “Love” for a Christmas card in 1965; later, he made screen prints (shown below), sculptures and paintings of the image. Consumer culture spawned the work, which led to actual consumer products: Today, “Love” appears on T-shirts and knickknacks worldwide. “There was always a lot of back and forth between Pop art and advertising,” Moser says. (Morgan Art Foundation/Artists Rights Society)

Many Pop artists worked with texts and images taken straight out of newspapers and magazines. Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist regularly used media clips in their works. Andy Warhol produced a series of monochromatic prints illustrating media coverage of death and disaster. A few of these — screen printed photos of Jackie Kennedy at President Kennedy’s funeral, and police dogs attacking a civil rights protester — are in the exhibition.

Not that the artists themselves were any less bewildered by current events than fans and critics of their works: “Pop artists were commenting on consumer society, while attempting to understand it themselves,” Moser says.

Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets NW; through Aug. 31, free; 202-633-7970. (Gallery Place)