“Cartoons are really meant for communication” –Roy Lichtenstein, 1962
from an interview with John Coplans (originally premiering in Artforum 5, no. 9, [May, 1967])
1962 saw Roy Lichtenstein’s career on the brink of mainstream success. In an era when Abstract Expressionism had damaged populist interest in visual art, relegating it to the realm of esoterica for many, Lichtenstein, along with Andy Warhol and a handful of other Pop artists, was destined to create art that was at once profound and accessible. Drawing his source material from a wealth of advertisement clippings and incorporating material from the entertainment complex as well, Lichtenstein rooted the symbolism of his work in an iconography already intimately familiar to his audience. The fascinating ways with which Lichtenstein manipulated his source imagery, however, is where the mystery of his work lies; it is also the reason why his oeuvre continues to be widely copied and hugely popular today. Woman With Peanuts, 1962, occupies a special place in Lichtenstein’s early work, where his fusion of style, source, and presentation makes for a gorgeous masterpiece.
Lichtenstein’s career leading up to Woman With Peanuts, 1962, is well-documented. His various tutelages and disavowed styles illustrate several separate incarnations of an artist prior to his mainstream success of the early 1960s. Lichtenstein was, first and foremost, a brilliant student, one who seamlessly integrated his academic genius into his work. During the 1950s, he oscillated between several discrete styles, negotiating the line between Abstract Expressionism and Cubism. During this period, Lichtenstein assumed the hard-earned skill of a Cubist master, observing Picasso and late Cézanne and exacting their methods in his own work. Yet, as he began to teach during the later half of the decade, the scholarly atmosphere drove his stylings back toward Expressionism, devoid of figure but rich in personal connection.
Yet, as the 1960s began, Lichtenstein discovered ways in which to fuse both Abstract Expressionism and Cubism into a form that was very new—and very controversial. Relocating in order to take a teaching post at Rutgers in 1960, Lichtenstein found himself inspired by imagery as a medium—where a familiar image could serve as much of a communicative purpose as a simple brushstroke on the surface of a canvas. Lichtenstein began to draw his material from a variety of sources, including newspapers, ripe with amateur-drafted visions of domesticity and luxury, and magazines, full of cartoonish drawings meant to connect with the reader in as simple a way as was possible.
Lichtenstein was attuned to the fact that the language of visual phrase was changing; no longer was the brushstroke the most relatable stimulus, but rather a familiar piece of industrialized comic advertising: “That part of popular culture on which he drew was basically a fund of unattributed images and phrases. He was not engaged in mutual collaboration but in acts of annexation. In the 1950s and 60s popular culture was regarded widely as a system of common property to be claimed at will. Lichtenstein made a point of avoiding famous comic artists like Chester Gould or Al Capp. His iconography was based on style and genre, not on authorship. Thus, Lichtenstein was not relying on the equivalent of auteur theory…but viewing comics as a continuum of sharable images.”(L. Alloway, “Comics and Objects”, Lichtenstein, New York, 1983, p. 32)
Lichtenstein’s fascination with the various motifs used in advertising the glory of domesticity—such as ads for soaps, cooking and an assortment of other products—stemmed from the nature of the images themselves. These were not cartoons of a domestic utopia created by creative artists, but rather by hired draughtsmen, who sought to represent a given product as positively and efficiently as possible. Their aim was amiable communication and Lichtenstein found himself appropriating and manipulating their images to an artistic extent. He observed the most recognizable images to have the highest degree of simplicity - a testament to successful advertising - and employed the source imagery from duPont and Arm and Hammer in a significant number of his works.
Woman With Peanuts, 1962, marks the second year of Lichtenstein’s love affair with his signature painterly invention—the Ben Day dot—the printer’s mark blown up to emphasize the industrial nature of the source image. At this early stage in investigating his new-found trope, Lichtenstein was still experimenting with methods of painting. In paintings such as Viip, 1962, Lichtenstein’s hand is still evident in the variations of the Ben Day dots, signaling an artist whose industrial methods of painting were still quite personal—and almost expressive. In Woman With Peanuts, dots are not fully mechanized and standard. Each is a unique and subtle variation, all of them deeply human and personal marks. Lichtenstein’s demarcating lines also possess a variable hand-wrought quality, transforming his source image in scale as well as material.
Premiering at the Sidney Janis Gallery in late 1962, Woman With Peanuts was part of one the most important exhibitions in contemporary art. Simultaneously ushering in greats such as Warhol, Rosenquist and Oldenburg (and, most obviously, Lichtenstein), the show was a harbinger of Pop Art’s inevitable domination of the New York scene. The painting, marvelous in both its chromatic power and its fabulous parody, embodied the new project of Roy Lichtenstein.
Lichtenstein, throughout his career, was continually experimenting and developing new techniques of production in order to deliver the most powerful visual impact for the viewer. For Woman With Peanuts, Lichtenstein’s process followed what would become central to his practice: after sifting through magazine and newspaper advertisement clippings for appealing source material, Lichtenstein would gather two or three sketches, then fuse selected parts into a single preparatory image. From there, he would rework his drawing to his liking, then from the final panel, he would draw his picture freehand onto the surface of his canvas. (Later in Lichtenstein’s career, he would make use of a projector for transferring drawings, but here we find him at a more adventurous point of departure.) He would then employ his primary tool for small markings (and Ben Day dots, if necessary)—a dog brush. Tightly packed plastic bristles on these brushes would allow for discrete and neat markings on his canvasses. We can find use of this brush in the pupil area of Woman With Peanuts—proof of Lichtenstein’s exactitude as an artist. Following the application of small markings, Lichtenstein would lay down his swaths of color before he laid down his heavy lines. This was done in order to maintain the illusion of industrial production, where lines always define the areas of color.
Before us, Woman With Peanuts is a perfectly demonstrable example of Lichtenstein’s ingenious method of creation. The woman herself is unique in her existence, a composite archetype. Above, her agreeable smile sits below her well-coiffed hair, a relic of 1950s suburbia, in addition to fabulous shades of red in her lips, eyes, nose, and chin. Her head is a discrete piece of the puzzle, coming from a single source. Yet her hat is from another place altogether: a pastiche of Lichtenstein’s favorite visual motifs at the time, its synthetic nature a combination of a policeman’s hat and a chef’s toque, even evoking a brilliant cut diamond (with which Lichtenstein was heavily engaging at the time in his sketches). The thick painted lines on her face and hat range from stylized and shapely, mostly throughout her luxurious hair, to mere strokes of definition, such as the scant lines that make up her hat texturing and soft cheeks. Her composition is nearly that of a classical sculpture, a marble figure with definitive lines.
Elsewhere in the painting, we find a variety of other sources. Her upper torso and hand stretching behind her have their origins in a newspaper ad for a tile cleaning product. Yet Lichtenstein has transplanted her sprawling hand onto his own woman, lending a disorienting and illusory sense of depth beyond the canvas with her gesture toward three-dimensionality. The void of yellow behind her, similar to Barnett Newman’s contemporary coloring, places her in a phantasmal nothingness, a purgatorial realm of suspension. Lichtenstein has manipulated the original coloring of her outfit for thematic purposes. Originally black-vested, the figure was meant to convey a housewife, examining the effectiveness of her new product on the bathroom wall. But here Lichtenstein strips her vest of color, implying that she is clad in professional whites. But her profession, exactly? For that we must examine her payload.
On a wide platter, tilted ominously to one side, she offers us a comically static mound of peanuts. Bathed in harmonious shades of both gold and orange, the plate is an odd choice if we are to presume that she is a caretaker or nurse, which her frock suggests. But similarly, if she is a chef, we could hardly pay her our most sincere compliments for a plate of such ordinary foodstuff. The truth must lie somewhere in the midst of it all, perhaps in the slightly fantastical nature of her creation: she once had a discrete identity, either domestic or professional, but Lichtenstein has buoyed her up into the realm of art with his assemblage, making her actual function irrelevant.
In addition to his manipulation of the figure’s identity through a convergence of source material, Lichtenstein has positioned her on a field of what would become his signature yellow. As Lichtenstein’s preferred mode of representation was parody, we can rest assured knowing that our figure’s function is artistic rather than proselytizing. The picture’s final effect is, unarguably, a gestalt vision of collage and subject, made gloriously unified by Lichtenstein’s technical process.
Although the figure’s identity is less important than her state of being, it would be sloppy to neglect the obvious undertones and overtones of sexual politics present in her portrayal. The end product exemplifies the glamorization of domesticity of the preceding decade. Confined in her role of domesticity, the woman is an obvious conflation of several female types, spliced together by Lichtenstein to form a full embodiment of prescribed womanhood in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Combined with her buxom build and impeccable features, the figure takes on a radical flatness of two-dimensional fantasy, similar to the art-historical compression of religious icons into a painted form. Even early in his career, Lichtenstein demonstrated his power in forming a single powerful image from many. It is “a tribute to Lichtenstein’s understanding of the power of advertising imagery and his own profound ability to convert a cliché into an icon.” (D. Waldman, Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1993, p. 55)
Woman With Peanuts, 1962, shares several features with a painting produced a year before. Girl With Ball, 1961, is quite useful in examining Lichtenstein’s intentions for selecting such imagery when developing his art: “The updated version of such 1940s movie-star pinups as Betty Grable, and other images like it, appealed to him precisely because they were so obvious and disingenuous. They represented a male ideal of the glamorous female, a bathing-suited figure very much in vogue in the 1950s…Lichtenstein exploited this symbolic value, converting her from a routine stock figure in advertising to a model of the new American figure in the new American art.” (D. Waldman, Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1993, p. 55) Furthermore, the single, reified beauty in both pictures share the the colors of their coiffures and figures with other contemporary works from Lichtenstein, including The Engagement Ring, 1961 and Look Mickey, 1961.
Elements of the painting draw inspiration from Lichtenstein’s specific artistic training. The question of the peanuts in the painting, for example, can be enlightened by Lichtenstein’s Surrealist interests, highlighted by his 1962 painting Femme au Chapeau, a version of Pablo Picasso’s 1942 work, Woman in Gray. Lichtenstein not only pays homage to Picasso with his tribute painting but also shares a wealth of imagery with the artist, which, in turn, hearkens back to the imagery of Surrealism: “The role of drawing in the development of Lichtenstein’s Surrealist works has a corollary in Picasso’s Surrealism, with its extraordinarily inventive body of graphic work…Both the emphasis on shifting modes of representation and the wide-ranging cast of characters in Lichtenstein’s Surrealist works—the beach ball Venus, the laurel-wreathed Attic faces in profile, isolated and enlarged to appear like sculptured busts, the window, the curtains, the chair with toy props…”(C. Stuckey, “Lichtenstein and Surrealism”, Roy Lichtenstein: Conversations with Surrealism, New York, 2005, pages variable) Once we understand Lichtenstein’s mindset at the time, filled with the vast imagery of the Surrealist unconscious, it is not entirely surprising that Lichtenstein would add a wondrous plate of peanuts into the mix, perhaps even impulsively.
In addition, the composition of the painting—with cartoonish but slightly schematic hands stretched back toward an unseen door, as well as polygons substituting for busts and shoulders—recalls Lichtenstein’s 1962 version of Cézanne’s Man With Folded Arms (1900). Lichtenstein’s project in maintaining the polygon-based forms of the original cartoons was not simple contentment with the original sketches, but rather the industrialized look of shapes: “Lichtenstein was attracted by the paradox of an art of no contours, or at least very complex ones, being presented in schematic form. These schemata of Cézanne’s art unintentionally resembled the comics, and Lichtenstein played with this fact.” (L. Alloway, “Art as a Topic”, Lichtenstein, New York, 1983, p. 46) Lichtenstein, ever the student of his favored precursors, reduces these formal qualities quite brilliantly in his own painting, his daring and sublime incorporation one of the most thrilling aspects of Woman With Peanuts, 1962.
Influenced by masters such as Picasso and Cézanne, Lichtenstein was keenly interested in how his work was being received by the public. Though an aspect of his artistic project was one of visually removing his hand from his work, a task at which he gradually improved during his career, Lichtenstein wanted neither his function as an artist to be misinterpreted, and nor his potential for inspiration and creativity during the execution of his technical process. Lichtenstein was astute in his contemporary observations of the relationship between the artist and his art: “Personally, I feel that in my own work I wanted to look programmed or impersonal, but I don’t really believe I am being impersonal when I do it. And I don’t think you can do this. Cézanne said a lot about having to remove himself from his work. Now this is almost a lack of self-consciousness and one would hardly call Cézanne’s work impersonal. I think we tend to confuse the style of the finished work with the method through which it was done.”(Roy Lichtenstein from an interview with Bruce Glaser, originally published in Artforum 4, no. 6 [February, 1966])
One can witness the very personal imprint of Lichtenstein’s hand in many components of the present lot. From the need to create a mind-bending perspective with the figure’s outstretched hand, to the humor inherent in her delicious gift, Lichtenstein is not a mere assembler of parts; he is their master. It is fitting, then, that the woman exists against a golden backdrop, taking her place among venerated modern Madonnas such as Warhol’s Marilyn, also painted in 1962. But while Warhol employed a readymade icon as his subject, Lichtenstein creates his own from pieces of the mundane that collect on kitchen tables and pile up in garages. Lichtenstein’s ambitious project yields a figure entirely artificial, yet familiar to all: “Throughout Lichtenstein’s career, his marriage of common, low-art objects with high-art style has been an attempt to define the real-world subject matter of popular culture within the context of Modernist abstraction, making the point that what he has been presenting to us is an abstraction of our experience of reality.”(D. Waldman, Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1993, p. 355) In this way, Lichtenstein succeeds in creating abstract unity out of real-world dissonance.
Woman With Peanuts, 1962 premiered at Sidney Janis during the same year in which Lichtenstein had his first solo show at the Castelli Gallery, a sure sign of his progress toward greatness. 1962 was truly a watershed year for Pop Art, as both Lichtenstein and Warhol found national attention for their groundbreaking work. Indeed, within the picture, we can find hints of Lichtenstein’s many artistic projects to come: the shape and texture of her hair resembles the brushstrokes that would make their first appearance in the mid-1960s, and the peanuts themselves preface the Still Lifes that would follow. Lichtenstein’s career was to be linear in its development, its many phases logical extensions of a brilliant mind: the comics begat his Brushstrokes, which shifted to Still Lifes, which led him to his Surrealist phase. All in all, Lichtenstein created an art history with only his own career.
Lichtenstein never abandoned the classic Romantic notion of elevating the mundane to the realm of high art: “His images look as prepackaged as a cliché; the events depicted appear to be crucial, but their critical quality is only sham. In revealing the trite situations of everyday life, his images also point up a consistent absence of crisis in so-called dramatic situations, emphasizing that everyday American life is composed of petty people enamored of petty problems—of people continuously preoccupied with taking care of themselves. The men and women Lichtenstein selects to depict are trapped in stupid situations, vassals of a system beyond their everyday control.”(J. Coplans, Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1972, p. 15)
Of course, it is Lichtenstein who chooses to assemble his subjects in a situation that is absurd, such as a woman carrying around an unbalanced tray of peanuts. Lichtenstein offers the opportunity to admire and be puzzled by his curious observation—so foreign, yet so familiar.