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Roy Lichtenstein Thesis Statement

Roy Lichtenstein’s striking sculpture, Woman: Sunlight, Moonlight, represents the triumphal return of the female figure in the revered Pop artist's late career. Executed in 1996 - just one year prior to the artist’s unexpected death – this work was created during the pinnacle of Lichtenstein’s career and irrefutably positions itself within the pantheon of his greatest works. Woman: Sunlight, Moonlight, re-processes the art historical trope of the bust through the lens of Lichtenstein’s signature Pop Art idiom. The work comes in full circle with Head with Blue Shadow, 1965 (Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas), Woman: Sunlight, Moonlight presents a complex portrait of a melancholic heroine in a three-quarter perspective. Standing more than 3 feet tall, the larger than life bust possesses a powerful presence that enchants with its formal complexity. In keeping with Lichtenstein’s style, Woman: Sunlight, Moonlight features black graphic outlines on patinated bronzed, coupled with being partially painted in primary colors with the artist’s signature Ben-Day dots. The unique feature of the work is that each side bears a distinct composition, which invites viewing from two sides. Formally reflecting the work’s very title, Woman: Sunlight, Moonlight, explores two chromatically contrasting renditions of the woman’s face. A quintessential example of the groundbreaking flat profile sculptures that Lichtenstein pioneered in the 1990s, this work beautifully exemplifies Lichtenstein’s unparalleled ability to harness the potential of negative and positive space. Executed in an edition of six, other examples of Woman: Sunlight, Moonlight, are now housed in prominent collections, such as the Broad Museum, Los Angeles, and have been included in over nine major exhibitions, including Lichtenstein’s landmark retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago, which thereafter traveled to the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C, Tate Modern, London, and Centre George Pompidou, Paris between 2012 and 2013. Within this edition, the present work distinguishes itself with its impeccable provenance, having notably resided with the Artist Estate since execution and since 2014 in the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation Collection.

Woman: Sunlight, Moonlight is a powerful continuation of some of the core themes that propelled Lichtenstein to critical acclaim in the early 1960s. A pioneer of the Pop Art movement, Lichtenstein first burst onto the scene with his so-called “Girl paintings.” Brilliantly blurring the boundaries between high and low art, Lichtenstein appropriated clichéd images of lovestruck or helpless ‘All-American' women from comic book and magazine pages and rendered them with his trademark graphic line and boldly colored Ben-Day dots, the dot system used in mass-circulation print sources. As Lichtenstein explained, ‘I am never drawing the object. I’m only drawing a depiction of the object — a kind of crystallized symbol of it.’ By re-presenting and re-casting the then already somewhat dated and cliché images of womankind through the medium of ‘high art', Lichtenstein ingeniously drew attention to the visual and cultural norms dictating contemporary culture. Indeed, as Diana Waldman aptly observed, these women “were not heroines but supplicants to the male ego, and Lichtenstein did not invent them; they or their counterparts can be found in the ads or romance comic books of the time" (Diane Waldman, Roy Lichtenstein, exh. cat., New York, 1993, p.113).

Evoking such early masterpieces such as Hopeless, 1963 (Kunstmuseum, Basel) or Ohhh…Alright…, 1964, the present work illustrates a re-emergence of this central theme that would occupy Lichtenstein in the final years of his life after a lengthy period away from the comic-book inspired motif of the female figure. Similar to his early works, Woman: Sunlight, Moonlight is based on a comic book frame - in this instance once taken from the popular 1960s romance comic book Secret Heart that depicts a handsome man in conversation with the blonde heroine. To the man’s statement “Don't count on it Doris! That’s the last you’ll ever see of my dear brother! He’s a failure and always will be one’, the woman wistfully replies “You’re wrong! He’ll be back…And a big success, too! Wait and see!”. Isolating the female’s face and removing all extraneous details, including the speech bubbles, Lichtenstein monumentalizes the heroine in the form of the revered, century-long tradition of the bust. Whereas Lichtenstein’s early project was driven by an interest in elevating the clichés and banalities of popular culture, while also exploring notions of reproduction, his reprisal of the female figure in the 1990s reflects a movement towards the pastiche of established art historical traditions. Engaging in a post-modern meta-discourse with artistic precedents, Lichtenstein here essentially reverses his Pop principles. With Woman: Sunlight, Moonlight Lichtenstein presents us with masterful double loop of appropriation that explores the conventions of art historical precedents – including his own world-famous oeuvre.

The resulting portrait represents the peak of Lichtenstein's over five-decade inquiry into the possibilities of sculpture. Indeed, sculpture had occupied a central position in Lichtenstein’s oeuvre from its very beginnings: while Lichtenstein already experimented with carved wood and stone, terracotta and various assemblages as early as the 1940s, it was notably of the mid-1960s that he embraced the sculptural form as means to further his unique Pop idiom - translating inherently two-dimensional source images into sculptural form. In 1967, Lichtenstein declared, "I was interested in putting two-dimensional symbols on a three-dimensional object" (John Coplans, Roy Lichtenstein, 1967, p. 16). However, in contrast to Lichtenstein's early sculpture Woman: Sunlight, Moonlight distinguishes itself with its radical flatness. Woman: Sunlight, Moonlight brilliantly articulates the way in which the artist blurs the boundaries of drawing, sculpture, and painting. “These pieces”, art critic and art historian Hal Foster indeed explained, "exist between painting and sculpture in terms not only of genre but also of structure; where Minimalist objects are neither painting nor sculpture… Pop objects tend to be both-and. If most representational painting is a two-dimensional encoding of three dimensional objects, Lichtenstein reverses the process here, and freezes it somewhere in between” (Hal Foster, 'Pop Pygmalion, in Roy Lichtenstein Sculpture, exh. cat., London, Gagosian Gallery, 2005, p. 10).

With Woman: Sunlight, Moonlight the viewer is presented with the culmination of Lichtenstein’s exploration of the female bust. Apart from Head with Blue Shadow, 1965 (Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas), the iconoclastic form of the female bust also prominently featured in Nude with Bust, 1995 - a striking painting from Lichtenstein's acclaimed Nude series that would arguably serve as the starting point for developing the present sculpture. Isolating the bust depicted in the aforementioned painting, Lichtenstein over the course of a year re-fined the composition in various drawings and mock models, ultimately creating a full-scale maquette from which the casting model would be created. Volume and depth is here transformed into compact line and color, giving the impression of an image cut-out from a newspaper or magazine floating in air. Seemingly drawn in space with fluid brushstrokes, the painted and patinated bronze outlines hover between two- and three-dimensionality - the subtle interplay of negative and positive space giving rise to a tantalizing image in flux. As Lichtenstein importantly explained, "I don't think the importance of the art has anything to do with the importance of the subject matter. I think importance resides more in the unity of the composition and in the inventiveness of perception" (Roy Lichtenstein quoted in Roy Lichtenstein Beginning to End, Fundacion Juan March, Madrid, 2007, p. 128).


Following in the conceptual footsteps of Picasso and Matisse, Lichtenstein abstracts the lovelorn heroine from the comic-book frame source image, and transforms her into a larger than life sculptural portrait in its own right. Lichtenstein, in the last interview ever given before his death in 1997, described this process of abstraction and slippage in the following way: "I've been using gradated dots or colors that go from one form to another, but the idea is that the lines could act like that to make areas or localities of the things that are independent. Of course, they don't look like anything in nature, so there's no subject matter excuse--though we don't really have to have excuses, I think, after Mondrian or Picasso or Cézanne.... If you did it without the subject matter you wouldn't know this was being done, so the subject matter helps because there's a reference to reality. Some kind of reality anyway" (Roy Lichtenstein quoted in David Sylvester Some Kind of Reality: Roy Lichtenstein interviewed by David Sylvester in 1966 and 1997, exh. cat., Anthony d'Offay, London, 1997, p.38)”. Belonging to the last works Lichtenstein created, Woman: Sunlight, Moonlight, beautifully articulates the way in which the artist continued his Modern artistic forebears’ investigation into the role of subject in art and the functions of line, color and spatial depth.

"I'm never drawing the object itself; I'm only drawing a depiction of the object - a kind of crystallized symbol of it."

Synopsis

Roy Lichtenstein was one of the first American Pop artists to achieve widespread renown, and he became a lightning rod for criticism of the movement. His early work ranged widely in style and subject matter, and displayed considerable understanding of modernist painting: Lichtenstein would often maintain that he was as interested in the abstract qualities of his images as he was in their subject matter. However, the mature Pop style he arrived at in 1961, which was inspired by comic strips, was greeted by accusations of banality, lack of originality, and, later, even copying. His high-impact, iconic images have since become synonymous with Pop art, and his method of creating images, which blended aspects of mechanical reproduction and drawing by hand, has become central to critics' understanding of the significance of the movement.

Key Ideas

Art had carried references to popular culture throughout the twentieth century, but in Lichtenstein's works the styles, subject matter, and techniques of reproduction common in popular culture appeared to dominate the art entirely. This marked a major shift away from Abstract Expressionism, whose often tragic themes were thought to well up from the souls of the artists; Lichtenstein's inspirations came from the culture at large and suggested little of the artist's individual feelings.

Although, in the early 1960s, Lichtenstein was often casually accused of merely copying his pictures from cartoons, his method involved some considerable alteration of the source images. The extent of those changes, and the artist's rationale for introducing them, has long been central to discussions of his work, as it would seem to indicate whether he was interested above all in producing pleasing, artistic compositions, or in shocking his viewers with the garish impact of popular culture.

Lichtenstein's emphasis on methods of mechanical reproduction - particularly through his signature use of Ben-Day dots - highlighted one of the central lessons of Pop art, that all forms of communication, all messages, are filtered through codes or languages. Arguably, he learned his appreciation of the value of codes from his early work, which drew on an eclectic range of modern painting. This appreciation may also have later encouraged him to make work inspired by masterpieces of modern art; in these works he argued that high art and popular art were no different: both rely on code.

Most Important Art

Drowning Girl (1963)

In the early 1960s, Lichtenstein gained renown as a leading Pop artist for paintings sourced from comic books, specifically DC Comics. Although artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns had previously integrated popular imagery into their works, no one hitherto had focused on cartoon imagery as exclusively as Lichtenstein. His work, along with that of Andy Warhol, heralded the beginning of the Pop art movement, and, essentially, the end of Abstract Expressionism as the dominant style. Lichtenstein did not simply copy comic pages directly, he employed a complex technique that involved cropping images to create entirely new, dramatic compositions, as in Drowning Girl, whose source image included the woman's boyfriend standing on a boat above her. Lichtenstein also condensed the text of the comic book panels, locating language as another, crucial visual element; re-appropriating this emblematic aspect of commercial art for his paintings further challenged existing views about definitions of "high" art.

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Roy Lichtenstein Artworks in Focus:

Roy Lichtenstein Overview Continues Below

Biography

Childhood

Roy Fox Lichtenstein was born in New York City in a family with a German-Jewish background. He grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with his father Milton, a real-estate broker, his mother Beatrice, a homemaker, and his younger sister Renee. As a child, Lichtenstein spent time listening to science fiction radio programs, visiting the American Museum of Natural History, building model airplanes, and drawing. As a teenager he nurtured his artistic interests by taking watercolor classes at Parsons School of Design, and in high school he started a jazz band.

Early Training

In 1940, Lichtenstein began taking Reginald Marsh's painting classes at the Art Students League, producing work very similar to Marsh's social realist style. Later that year, Lichtenstein enrolled at Ohio State University (OSU), where he studied drawing and design along with botany, history, and literature. He created sculptural animal figures, as well as portraits and still life works influenced by the work of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. At OSU, Lichtenstein also took a class with Hoyt Leon Sherman, whose theories about the connection between vision and perception, or "organized perception," became important concepts for Lichtenstein as his work evolved.

In 1943, Lichtenstein was drafted into the Army. As part of his tour of duty, he took engineering courses at De Paul University in Chicago. He also served as a clerk and draftsman, enlarging army newspaper cartoons for his commanding officer. He then traveled with the Army to England, France, Belgium, and Germany. After receiving an honorable discharge in 1946, the artist returned to OSU to complete his Bachelor's degree in Fine Arts. The next year he joined the graduate program at the University and served as an art instructor. His art at this time was inspired by aspects of Abstract Expressionism and biomorphic Surrealism.

In the next several years his work was included in gallery shows, such as a group exhibition at the Ten-Thirty Gallery in Cleveland, where he met his future wife Isabel Wilson, the gallery assistant at Ten-Thirty. By this stage, his paintings featured musicians, street workers, and racecar drivers rendered in biomorphic shapes and in a style that recalled the Surrealist work of Paul Klee. Over the next several years, Lichtenstein's paintings featured birds and insects in this same Surrealist style, as well as medieval motifs, particularly imagery of knights and dragons. In addition to strictly two-dimensional paintings, Lichtenstein began nurturing what would become a long-standing interest in using multiple media; in his first solo show in New York, at Carlebach Gallery (1951), he exhibited three-dimensional assemblages of kings and horses made of wood, metal, and found objects.

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Roy Lichtenstein Biography Continues

Mature Period

After moving to Cleveland with Isabel, Lichtenstein took on a number of commercial engineering and drafting jobs. His work at this time focused on cowboy and Native American motifs; more significantly, he created a rotating easel to be able to easily paint from all angles. The method of working (the rotation of the canvas) was more compelling to Lichtenstein: "I paint my own pictures upside down or sideways. I often don't even remember what most of them are about... The subjects aren't what hold my interest." In 1952, John Heller Gallery in New York began representing his work. Lichtenstein took an assistant professor position at SUNY Oswego in 1957, where his thickly textured paint and abstracted imagery drew from the Abstract Expressionist style. Unlike the Abstract Expressionists, however, he began to incorporate figures into his canvases; some of his paintings featured characters such as Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse hidden among the other depicted forms. Lichtenstein continued to teach, moving on to Rutgers's Douglass College in 1960 as an assistant professor, where he met Allan Kaprow. Kaprow introduced Lichtenstein to Claes Oldenburg, Lucas Samaras, Robert Watts, George Segal, Robert Whitman and others who were integral members of the "happenings" art scene of the 1950s and 60s. The group produced unique performative art pieces that differed each time depending on audience involvement, but Lichtenstein was inspired by their interest in cartoon imagery.

In 1961, Lichtenstein created Look Mickey, his first cartoon work using Ben-Day dots, a commercial printing style for comic books or illustrations where small, closely spaced, colored dots are combined to create contrasting colors. He later exaggerated these dots in his paintings, a technique that came to define his style. The technique he developed at this time blended aspects of hand-drawing and mechanical reproduction; by 1963 he had settled on a procedure by which he first reproduced the chosen panel from a cartoon by hand, then projected the drawing using an opaque projector, traced it onto a canvas, then filled in the image with bold colors and stenciled Ben-Day dots.

In 1961, gallery owner Leo Castelli began representing Lichtenstein's work, giving him a solo exhibition in 1962 that substantially elevated the artist's renown and revenue. His fame did not come without controversy; his compositions outraged some viewers, and prompted LIFE Magazine to call him "one of the worst artists in America," albeit in a tongue-and-cheek fashion. Nevertheless, Lichtenstein soon began to show his work in major national exhibitions. In the 1960s, he continued using the Ben-Day dot technique in images of women and WWII combat scenes, as in Drowning Girl (1963), mostly adapted from issues of DC Comics. These cartoon-inspired paintings established Lichtenstein as an extremely prominent and immediately recognizable Pop art figure, both revered and reviled for his challenges to traditional understandings of "fine art."

By the mid 1960s, Lichtenstein began creating large-scale murals, his first of which was produced in 1964 for the World's Fair in Flushing, Queens. Moving beyond figural depictions, Lichtenstein also broadened his use of Ben-Day dots and bold, solid colors to depict landscapes, as in Yellow Landscape(1965). Such works often integrated industrial materials such as Plexiglas, metal, and a shimmery plastic called Rowlux, reflecting the artist's continued interest in using media beyond simply paint and canvas. Lichtenstein also began to create ceramic sculptures and, most iconically, produced a series of paintings of giant, cartoon-like brushstrokes covering the canvas, images which seemed to mock the Abstract Expressionists' use of the brushstroke as a signature and tool of individual expression. The second half of the 1960s also marked Lichtenstein's separation from his wife Isabel, and, a few years later, his marriage to Dorothy Herzka.

Lichtenstein began producing prints in 1962, using the offset lithograph technique that was more often used in commercial printing, and he began a long-term collaboration with the printmaking studio Gemini G.E.L. in 1969. In the 1970s, he left New York City for Southampton, where, inspired by Modern masters, he created still lifes and works with diverse textures and materials. Sculpture became an important focus during this time, particularly the use of bronze, which he used to produce large, painted sculptures of everyday objects such as lamps, pitchers, and steaming coffee cups. Lichtenstein also created a series of paintings involving mirrors, inspired by the historical use of mirror imagery in paintings to create a space beyond the canvas, as well as by the abstract designs used to symbolize mirrors in graphic art.

Late Period

By 1980, Lichtenstein was drawing from a wide variety of influences in his work, taking inspiration from Surrealism, Cubism, and German Expressionism, and using many different types of media. He re-established a studio in Manhattan and became more interested in Abstract Expressionism, as well as in Geometric Abstraction. He created a series of home interiors in the 1990s, basing his designs on ads in the Yellow Pages. Additionally, he continued to produce large paintings and sculptures for public spaces. In 1995, he received the National Medal of Arts. After his death in 1997, the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation was established in 1999.


Legacy

Roy Lichtenstein played a critical role in subverting the skeptical view of commercial styles and subjects established by the Abstract Expressionists. By embracing "low" art such as comic books and popular illustration, Lichtenstein became one of the most important figures in the Pop art movement. While his paintings of cartoons and comics are his most recognizable work, he had a prolific and somewhat eclectic career that drew from Cubism, Surrealism, and Expressionism. But it is his re-imagining of popular culture through the lens of traditional art history that has remained a considerable influence to later generations of artists, as Pop art went on to significantly inform Postmodernism.

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