The Conductor

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  • Condition Report

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  • Provenance

    Leo Castelli, New York
    The Mayor Gallery, London (acquired from the above in early 1976)
    Acquired from the above by the present owners on 3 June 1976

  • Literature

    Jack Cowart, Roy Lichtenstein 1970-1980, New York, 1981, pp. 97 and 173

  • Video

    Roy Lichtenstein, 'Conductor', Lot 10

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 27 June 2019

  • Catalogue Essay

    A virtuosic pop transformation of Italian Futurism, The Conductor, 1975, boasts Roy Lichtenstein's characteristically delineated forms, his distinct red, blue and yellow colour palette, and his iconic Ben-Day dots. Taking Gino Severini’s monumental Mare = ballerina (Sea = Dancer), 1914 as a point of departure, Lichtenstein reinterprets the Futurist composition and places it within his iconic visual syntax, rooted in the nostalgia and commercialism of comic books and advertising materials. The present work is an unquestionable masterpiece of Lichtenstein’s widely celebrated oeuvre, and one that additionally holds singular academic importance.

    The Conductor, along with a panoply of works from the 1970s based on paintings by modern masters, demonstrates Lichtenstein's renewed engagement with complex art historical themes that he had considered in early works such as Femme au Chapeau, 1962, and Woman With Flowered Hat, 1963, as well as other paintings based on works by Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne and Piet Mondrian. It was in 1974, however, one year before the execution of the present work, that Lichtenstein first engaged with Futurism as his subject matter, painting a limited number of Futurist-inspired works between 1974-1976. Examples of Lichtenstein’s Futurist paintings are held in prominent collections, his monumental The Red Horseman, 1974, resides at the Ludwig Forum for International Art, Aachen (currently on loan to the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna) and his Violin, 1976, at the Denver Art Museum. This cycle of works embodies Lichtenstein’s creative genius at the apex of his extraordinary career. Musing on the evolution of his artistic subject, Lichtenstein noted, ‘I also started to use the work of modern masters as subject matter… Instead of using subject matter that was considered vernacular, or everyday, I used subject matter that was celebrated as art’ (Roy Lichtenstein, quoted in 'A Review of My Work Since 1961', Bader, 2009, p. 69).

    Moving away from the comic-book aesthetic that had brought him to prominence in the 1960s, Lichtenstein’s abiding interest in questions of art’s meaning, form, content and style once again came to the fore in the early 1970s, as his practice became less narrative and more abstract. Examining higher artistic sources and the grandeur of artistic movements, he created compositions based on the avant-garde movements of 20th century art history, meditating on the nature of the creative enterprise itself. In his seminal canvases responding to Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism and German Expressionism, the pristine lines and precise dots underline Lichtenstein’s self-consciously cultivated aura of industrial production, intrinsic to the Pop Art narrative and his response to the painterly nature of Abstract Expressionist painting. In the present work, however, the carefully traced lines and vivid arrangement of colour is far from automated; the preparatory drawing reveals how carefully the composition took form, the hand-painted surface animated with vigour despite its rigid delineation. Revisiting the act of quotation and the qualities it contributes to his new works, Lichtenstein's '1970s quotations from within art should not mislead us into thinking that Lichtenstein's interest is purely aesthetic. He is not setting up an art-for-art's sake loop...On the contrary, Lichtenstein preserves historical differences between source and variants...The disparity between that which is quoted and the form in which the quotation is made builds distortion into the reference, any reference. The clarity of Lichtenstein's composition is like a façade in front of crumbling rooms’ (Laurence Alloway, Lichtenstein, New York, 1983, p. 84).

    Reinterpreting Severini’s painting using his distinctively unmodulated colours, Ben-Day dots and a firm network of intersecting arcs and lines, Lichtenstein halted the image, suspending the futuristic sense of rapid motion. Instilling the work with renewed movement through the gradated Ben-Day dots, the artist placed the composition within his distinctly pop aesthetic. Lichtenstein’s monumental painting bridges the tense realm between originality, homage and imitation, moving beyond the pixelated ideals of his earlier comic book paintings, yet raising similar questions of legitimacy, parody, pastiche and transformation within artistic creation. In his earlier examinations of modern art as a subject matter, Lichtenstein became particularly engaged with the work of Picasso, completing a number of paintings after the Cubist master and noting that, ‘Picasso’s always been such a huge influence… I don’t think that I’m over his influence’ (Roy Lichtenstein, quoted in David Sylvester, Lichtenstein: All About Art, London, 2003, p. 58). The present work, with the musical undertone of the conductor, echoes Picasso’s Pierrot as Orchestra Conductor, 1920-1923, a fragmented stencil of overlapping planes that precedes the present fusion of Pop Art and Futurism. Here Lichtenstein’s vast repertoire of source material and multifarious influences come to the fore.

    In The Conductor, Lichtenstein reframes Severini’s Sea = Dancer both literally and metaphorically. Evocative of the work, but not directly quoting Severini’s composition, The Conductor marks a progression from Lichtenstein’s early art history paintings which, though rendered in a pop aesthetic, remain intrinsically attached to their source paintings. Taking the combined forms of Severini’s original canvas, Lichtenstein has fragmented, juxtaposed and recomposed the composition, as Jack Cowart astutely noted, Lichtenstein’s masterly paintings constitute ‘a rich dialogue of forms—all intuitively modified and released from their nominal sources’ (Jack Cowart, Roy Lichtenstein 1970–1980, New York, 1981, p. 109).

    Portraying a conductor of machinery or a musical director, the lyrical yet fragmented nature of the composition alludes to both the musical and the technological, leaving the composition in a liminal state. Severini’s original canvas is thought to have a specific source in George Seurat’s pointillist Le Chahut, 1889-1890, exposing the continued importance of pastiche within the canon of painting. Le Chahut depicts a fleeting scene of Parisian nightlife in which women and men are dancing the risqué chahut, or can-can, legs and skirts whimsically aligned and thrown into the air. In the present work, Lichtenstein’s conductor appears to mirror the graduated lines and calculated arrangement of Seurat’s canvas, as does Severini’s, Sea = Dancer. Each canvas progresses through the modernity of its own space and time, yet the common fundamental concern with the effects of light and colour and the compositional means of recreating these forces, remains. While Seurat employs his strict pointillist system of minute dots of paint, Severini applies larger divisionist brushstrokes, divided by the futuristic curvature of line. In Lichtenstein’s pop interpretation of the subject, the artist masterfully engages his characteristic Ben-Day dots to cast the illusion of motion as the conductor casts his signal, allowing the canvas to surge with the vivacity of a pointillist masterwork.

    Committed to the action of the present, Futurism paved the way for the avant-garde at the dawn of the 20th century. Like Pop, Futurism rejected tradition and sought inspiration from new technology. Within this light, it seems distinctly fitting that Lichtenstein should select Futurism as a concern for a limited number of his art historical paintings, asking questions on concept, form and technique. At the time, in the catalogue for the 1961 Museum of Modern Art Futurist exhibition, which Lichtenstein most likely visited, Joshua Taylor observed the importance of Futurism, anticipating the impact that the movement would have on Lichtenstein. ‘The Futurists were not only the first artists to take cognizance of the dynamism of a technological society, but they also produced works of art of extraordinary emotional impact. They translated the kinetic rhythms and the confused, intense sensations of modern life into potent visual form. The Futurists' approach to art, their manifestos and demonstrations, set a pattern for many art movements which followed’ (Joshua Taylor, Futurism, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1961, p. 7).

    The intoxicating force of Filippo Marinetti’s 'Futurist Manifesto' radiates through the history of 20th century art and music. With colour as important as motion, artist and instrument builder Luigi Russolo looked to futuristic musical interventions to bolster his artistic repertoire. Russolo was the first of many visual artists who sought to paint with sound; ‘I am not a musician,’ he penned, ‘I am a Futurist painter using a much loved art to project my determination to renew everything. And so... unconcerned by my apparent incompetence and convinced that all rights and possibilities open up to daring, I have been able to initiate the great renewal of music by means of the Art of Noises’ (Luigi Russolo, ‘L'Arte dei Rumori’, Milan, 1913). Anticipating the early percussion scores of Edgard Varèse and John Cage, Russolo as a ‘conductor’ of futuristic music brought on a progression that resonates into contemporary sound, from sound design in film, to television and computer games. Referencing the Futurists in both composition and inspiration, the fragmented conductor within Lichtenstein’s abstract portrait nods to Russolo’s Manifesto ‘The Art of Noises’ where he asserts that ‘The limited circle of pure sounds must be broken, and the infinite variety of 'noise-sound' conquered’ (Luigi Russolo, ‘L'Arte dei Rumori’, Milan, 1913).

    Echoing the Futurists' concern with pace, praising a ‘new beauty: the beauty of speed’, materialised by ‘A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath ... a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace’, Lichtenstein demonstrated a dedication to motion and speed throughout his oeuvre, depicting cars and horses, dramatic explosions, pops and bangs (Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, 'Manifesto of Futurism', Le Figaro, 20 February 1909). In The Conductor, Lichtenstein transforms the futuristic manner of depicting speed, systematically portraying jagged, dissected planes. The artist nods towards the hallmark of futurism, yet he takes the canvas beyond the confines of the earlier movement. Severini’s radiating power of light is transformed into Lichtenstein’s faceted plane and sliced composition. Appropriating Severini’s complex and dynamic painterly division, initially used by the Futurist master to evoke the sense of movement in space, Lichtenstein transposes the arcs of the original composition into his simplified forms allowing the intersecting black vectors to anchor the image to the canvas. Refining the already abstracted image, Lichtenstein questions the futuristic source image. Criticising the shortcomings of futuristic depiction of action whilst confirming the intrinsic link between high art and popular culture, the artist mused ‘Futurism does show motion, but it does not show motion very well, painting is not a time art. But I am interested in the quirky results of those derivatives of Cubism and like to push this quirkiness further toward the absurd. I am also interested in the relationship between depictions of movement in Futurism and in comic-strips’ (Roy Lichtenstein, quoted in 'A Review of My Work Since 1961', Bader, 2009, p. 69).

    The Conductor, a singular example of Lichtenstein’s musings on modern art, was painted shortly after Diane Waldman published the first retrospective monograph on Lichtenstein in 1972, suggesting that perhaps Lichtenstein himself had been compelled to reflect on his previous work and his status as an artist within the established canon of 20th century art. Motivated by an absolute visual interest in the varying styles of his great artistic forebears, the artist noted, ‘I had no program; I always thought each one was the last. But then I'd see something like a way of doing a Monet through just dots that would look like a machine-made Impressionist painting’ (Roy Lichtenstein, quoted in Roy Lichtenstein: All About Art, exh. cat., Louisiana Museum of Art, Louisiana, 2004). A flawless union between Futurism and Pop Art, The Conductor is an eloquent example of Lichtenstein’s continued engagement with notions of creativity and authenticity, demonstrating his remarkable ability to celebrate the possibilities of popular imagery.

Ο10

Property from the Miles and Shirley Fiterman Collection

The Conductor

signed and dated 'rf Lichtenstein '75' on the reverse
oil and Magna on canvas
188 x 137.2 cm (74 x 54 in.)
Painted in 1975, this work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.

Estimate
£4,000,000 - 6,000,000 

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Rosanna Widén

Director, Senior Specialist
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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 27 June 2019