Roy Lichtenstein - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Saturday, May 25, 2019 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    The Mayor Gallery, London
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    West Palm Beach, Norton Museum of Art, April 1997 (on extended loan)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Painted in 1986, Roy Lichtenstein’s monumental work Head represents the sum of a prodigious career dedicated to interrogating the history of painting whilst melding the aesthetic tendencies of popular culture and fine art. The present work belongs to an important group of abstract portraits from the same year, each composed through the layering of seemingly conflicting painterly styles. Here Lichtenstein abolishes the divisions between abstraction and representation that underpinned critical discussions surrounding the medium within the 20th century. The artist provides a thorough history of mark-making, but also a succinct summary of the vast scope of art historical references that he has mastered within his own career. When the work was executed the artist had spent almost three decades re-imagining a plethora of artistic styles through the lens of his bold, comic-book aesthetic. Considering Futurist and Art Deco aesthetics respectively, Horse and Rider, 1976, and Modern Painting, 1967 are two examples that recall artistic movements, both coming from the prestigious Fiterman Collection that has housed the present work for the past three decades. Head re-orientates Lichtenstein’s long-standing “hands-off” engagement with Abstract Expressionism and takes a newly tactile appraisal of the significance of the brushstroke.

    Lichtenstein will be forever immortalised within the annals of art history for his re-appropriation of comic book imagery and the aesthetics of industrial printing through the medium of paint. In the mid 1960s Lichtenstein would turn his unique Pop eye to focus on the very foundations of painting and the act of mark making itself in his Brushstroke series. In Little Big Painting, 1965, in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York he attentively illustrates the physical qualities of brushstrokes at an exaggerated scale. Typical to the playfully sardonic edge that defined Pop Art, the motif was actually taken from a printed source: the comic book story entitled The Painting, printed in Strange Suspense Stories in October 1964. In this seemingly irreverent act – copying from widely available imagery rather than painting from life or emotion – Lichtenstein wittily debunked the spiritual aura of the brushstroke as enshrined by his Abstract Expressionist forebears who had dominated the New York art scene prior to his arrival. As the artist surmised: “it’s taking something that originally was supposed to mean immediacy and I’m tediously drawing something that looks like a brushstroke… I want it to look as though it were painstaking. It’s a picture of a picture and it’s a misconstrued picture of a picture” (Roy Lichtenstein, quoted in James Rondeau and Sheena Wagstaff, Roy Lichtenstein, New Haven & London, 2012, p. 50) Painted two decades later, in Head Lichtenstein makes a far more explicit reference to Abstract Expressionist gestures. Displaying some of the loosest brushwork within his oeuvre, at the margins of the frame and as a central component of the face motif, Lichtenstein provides a visceral account of raw paint being drawn across the canvas with expressive abandon. At the same time, these gestures are immediately parodied by contrastingly illustrative versions of themselves. A set of clearly delineated block-colour forms to the right are reminiscent of the Brushstroke paintings. Finally, further allusions to the foundation of Pop Art are made through the background presence of the exaggerated Ben-Day dot motif; their mechanical regularity and allusions to commercial printing act as a patterned riposte to the sweeping swathes of unblended pigment.

    1983 was also the year that Lichtenstein designed his important poster Against Apartheid to protest the ongoing human rights violations in South Africa. In this iconic image, Lichtenstein makes different styles of brushstroke his subject. Images of painted lines in his characteristic cartoon style harmonise with traces of raw paint drawn over the image surface to create an exuberant symphony where each component supports the aesthetic weight of the other – a metaphor for the peaceful societal coexistence. In Head we are drawn into the same game of meta-referencing. Lichtenstein recalls his long-standing relationship with the mediated image to confuse the relationship between what is ‘original’ and what is copied. Whilst the basis of the right hand side seems grounded in simplified forms reminiscent of the 60s Brushstroke paintings, their cartoon illusionism is disrupted by luscious, fleshy pinks that recall the oversized mark-making of Willem de Kooning. The methods of signification are further challenged by the face motif itself. Lips and eyes appear to be conjured in a mixture of styles; they represent human facial features but can equally be read purely as brush strokes.

    From early on in his career Lichtenstein was quick to acknowledge his work in relation to Abstract Expressionism’s overriding tendency towards “ground-directedness” where “You put something down, react to it, put something else down, and the painting itself becomes a symbol of this.” (Roy Lichtenstein in What is Pop Art? Interviews with eight painters, G. R. Swenson, Art News 67, November 1963, pp. 25-27) But whilst Lichtenstein would admit that the referential propensities of Pop Art offered a more “object directed” approach, he was also quick to highlight the union between his work and the abstractions of the New York school: “There is humor here. The work is still ground-directed; the fact that it’s an eyebrow or an almost direct copy of something is unimportant. The ground-directedness is in the painter’s mind and not immediately apparent in the painting.” (Roy Lichtenstein, Ibid.) In the present work the iconic Ben-Day dots are employed as a decorative pattern rather than a component of a visual narrative. Head thus expresses Lichtenstein’s fundamental belief that, despite the elements of popular culture it might refer to, his art is equally a formal exercise that examines the abstract components of a composition through the application of paint to canvas. As noted by his wife Dorothy Lichtenstein, “Roy viewed all of his paintings as abstract lines and marks on canvas, no matter what they looked like.” (Dorothy Lichtenstein in exhibition catalogue, Lichtenstein: Modern Painting by Dave Hickey, New York: Richard Gray Gallery, 2010, p. 5) Referring obliquely to the naive abstract portraits of Picasso, Lichtenstein constructs Head in two distinct halves, dissected vertically: a freehanded vertical swatch of brown pigment is contrasted with the mechanically regulated pattern of the Ben-Day dots. Successfully bringing together free wielding artistic abstraction with the aesthetics of commercial printing, in Head Lichtenstein proves that not only is it possible for these styles to harmoniously coexist, but they can also work together to create a new vision of humanity.

Property from the Miles and Shirley Fiterman Collection



signed and dated '© rf Lichtenstein '86' on the reverse
oil and Magna on canvas
228.6 x 152.4 cm. (90 x 60 in.)
Executed in 1986.

HK$22,000,000 - 35,000,000 

Sold for HK$23,550,000

Contact Specialist

Isaure de Viel Castel
Head of Department, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 26 May 2019