Signed and dated "rf Lichtenstein 72" on the reverse.
$4,000,000 - 6,000,000
Sold for $4,085,000
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Provenance Leo Castelli, New York Galerie Beyeler, Basel James Corcoran Gallery, Santa Monica Gagosian Gallery, New York
Exhibited Basel, Galeria Beyeler, Still Lifes in the Twentieth Century, October 1978 - February 1979
Literature B. Fahlman, American Images: The SBC Collection of Twentieth-Century American Art, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996 S. Ratibor, ed., Roy Lichtenstein, Still Lifes, New York: Gagosian Gallery, 2010, fig. 13, p. 20 (illustrated)
“ Art relates to perception, not nature. All abstract artists try to tell you that what they do comes from nature, and I’m always trying to tell you that what I do is completely abstract.” ROY LICHTENSTEIN, 1995
Though we most commonly associate Roy Lichtenstein’s work with the subjects of his time–the cartoon strip, the post-modern brushstroke, the printer’s “Ben-Day” dot–we must not forget that Lichtenstein was both an ardent student of art history and a fiercely passionate teacher. While hailed as one of the two progenitors of Pop Art, Lichtenstein was far more nuanced than any label would suggest, and he took a great deal of time to explore his relationship to the great artists that had come before him. The result of Lichtenstein’s looking backwards was a series of ingenious pictures that prove him both an agent of change as well as a stalwart for tradition, as formal as he was exploratory. The present lot, Still Life, 1971, is among his very first works in the series–it is Lichtenstein’s tribute to an eternal trope in art history.
After exploding onto the contemporary art scene in 1961, Lichtenstein had grown used to working in a variety of forms under the advisement of Leo Castelli. Simultaneously, he was perfecting his own brand of abstraction: the printer’s Ben-Day dot, the Fauvist blocks of colors, and various other visual. Yet, after Lichtenstein’s completion of his comic strip paintings (to which he would return only rarely in his later career), he found himself at an impasse. Pop art in its original form was becoming a subject of the past, for the massive national attention that it garnered during the first half of the 1960s was exhausting the American public through its overexposure. “Lichtenstein saw this and began adjusting his work accordingly. He couldn’t do much to its basic form; the defining elements–dots, lines, color–were by now unalterable. What he could change was content.”(H. Cotter, “Roy Lichtenstein— Retospective: at the National Gallery of Art”, The New York Times, October 18, 2012) His next move, as opposed to creating paintings that portrayed Pop/consumerist iconography, was to investigate the art of subjectivity itself; the late 1960s and early 1970s brought several introspective series that explored the painter’s many component pieces, from the Brushstrokes, to the Reversed Canvasses, to the series of the present lot, the Still Lifes.
Lichtenstein had recently paid homage to the impressionist and Post-impressionist masters with his interiors series, but now he chose to take up the historical still life in his own hand and with his own series of visual tropes and signature motifs. Still Life, 1971 is no less a realistic portrayal of a common kitchen scene than one of Cezanne’s own, yet Lichtenstein’s method of abstraction competes with its subjects for attention. Lichtenstein limits his work to only a handful of colors, namely bright yellow, dark purple, cadmium red and white. But somehow the visual impact of the piece is greater than the sum of its hues, for Lichtenstein combines his colors with the subtle art of his motifs.
the composition is dominated by the lushness of the heaping grapes—decidedly concord in favor. Sitting atop one another in a comical equality of size, the grapes bear Lichtenstein’s signature reflective strip—he artist’s economical method of portraying a light source in his pictures. Five grapes have detached and fall gracefully to the table, seducing the viewer to indulge in the ripe, sensuous fruit. Grapes are a common symbol in Lichtenstein’s vocabulary of images, usually assuming an adjective role—contrasting bananas and a yellow scrim, as in Still Life with Mirror, 1972; supporting a red apple as in Still Life: Apple and Grapes, 1972; accenting an object, as in Still life with Silver Pitcher, 1972. Here however the wine-rich fruits assume a grand position, frontally cascading through the scene, overwhelming the bowl and enticing the viewer.
In Lichtenstein’s array, the vibrant yellow apple makes a bold competition to the grapes. in Greek mythology, the golden apple was thrown by eris, the goddess of discord, at a wedding ceremony she was not invited to.
The apple was inscribed καλλίστ or, “to the fairest.” A competition ensued between three goddesses: Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Paris of Troy was enlisted by Zeus as the judge. Each goddess presented a bribe to win the golden apple: Hera offered to make him the king of Europe and Asia, Athena offered him wisdom and skill in battle, and Aphrodite offered him the most beautiful woman in the world as his wife, Helen of Sparta. Aphrodite won the challenge, and thus Helen, leaving her husband Menelaus, stole away with Paris to Troy–which sparked the Trojan War. Here, Lichtenstein’s golden apple antagonizes the mighty grapes, though it is Dionysus, god of fertility and wine who triumphs in this battle of mythological fruits.
Elsewhere, the thick, black outline of the bowl contains an unexpected dichromate: the obvious white of the bowl is spotted with cadmium red Ben-Day dots, the signifier of shadow in Lichtenstein’s world of print magnification. This particular pattern gives the present lot the illusion of being cut directly from a newspaper, the clipping blown up so that we see its many anatomical parts. On the right-hand side of Lichtenstein’s picture, a single yellow hue is sufficient to color three separate objects: the framing curtain, the golden apple, and the book. Lichtenstein’s expert use of the line has the observer never guessing twice about the delineation of objects: their obvious separation and common coloring seems natural and even proper.
Lichtenstein’s technique during his Still Life series was not to paint his subjects directly, but rather to find a secondary source, such as a magazine photo or even another painting, and transform the objects within into his own hand: “Larger, slightly later paintings introduce vessels–cups and saucers, wine glasses, pitchers–and invoke traditional still-life setups with drapery and mirrors…Lichtenstein was looking not only at 17th-century Dutch still lifes but also at early-19th-century American “deception” paintings by William Michael Harnett and others…For the most part Lichtenstein wasn’t setting up his own still lifes; he was painting from other paintings that happened to be still lifes.”(K. Rosenberg, “Art Review–At Gagosian: Lichtenstein After the Funny Papers”, The New York Times, June 10, 2007) The “deception paintings” in particular have a special resonance when placed alongside Lichtenstein’s Still Life: organized to achieve a perfect semblance of balance at the cost (at the cost of some of the finer points of reality, bringing about the label “deception”. In the present lot, Lichtenstein has pursued a similar principle–the table’s surface displays no shadow or perspective, allowing Lichtenstein’s fatness to highlight use of visual tropes.
Similar to the set-ups of the Impressionists, Lichtenstein’s Still Life would be an improbable organic positioning indeed–the book wedged between the bowl and curtain seems utterly curious. But, also similar to the works of the Dutch Golden Age Artists, Picasso, and Cezanne, Lichtenstein’s objects are placed in a configuration that best evokes textural and chromatic contrast. Though he accomplishes both through a remarkably economical use of color, Lichtenstein was still commenting on the nature of the still life, namely that it identifies the painter’s hand perhaps more clearly than any other form. Lichtenstein proved that the still lifes were now “paraphrases of Picasso, Mondrian, and others, which attempt to confirm these artworks as things that are no longer experienced in time and space but as existing categories–as a ‘Picasso’, ‘a Mondrian’, ‘A Monet’. Second hand experience.”(P. Tojner, “I Know How You Must Feel…”, Roy Lichtenstein: All About Art, Denmark, 2003, p. 30) It was only appropriate that Lichtenstein place his own mark on this immortal tradition. Lichtenstein was eventually to move on from his Still Life series, pursuing the avenues of new visual motifs, such as the Brushstroke and the surrealist paintings of the late 1970s and early 80s. Yet the present lot represents a pivotal change for Lichtenstein: no longer chained to the Pop iconography that had defined his work during the 1960s, he was free to explore himself as a working artist, and to engage in his craft with both a knowing historical consciousness and a curiosity that precipitated his images of the 1970s and beyond. His beautiful portrayal of a scene of utter simplicity is a radical turnabout from thechaos of his cartoon strips, and in it we can see Lichtenstein painting with a sense of calm and confidence unprecedented in his career.
The present lot is not only a sign of Lichtenstein’s bold experimentation in 1971, it is also a portrayal of his love for his work. Still Life shows us a fulfilled artist: conscious of the past, while painting for the present. The resulting vibrancy of scene, in luscious tones, transports the beholder to a specific moment in Lichtenstein’s career, one that defined his subsequent production. In its ripe immediacy, Still Life, 1971 fuses the originality of pop with the subjectivity of centuries of painting, an enduring tribute to the power of Lichtenstein’s thesis.