Roy Lichtenstein - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, May 16, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Locksley Shea Gallery, Minneapolis
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Roy Lichtenstein, February 7 - March 22, 1970 (titled Three Columns)

  • Literature

    Roy Lichtenstein: Modern Paintings, exh. cat., Richard Gray Gallery, New York, 2010, no. 43, p. 57 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Roy Lichtenstein’s Modern Painting, 1967, provides an alluring invitation to analyze and dissect the key aesthetic innovations the artist gifted the history of art. Moving beyond the narrative-based works that had gained him widespread fame at the start of the decade, Lichtenstein engaged with the genre of landscape painting in the mid-1960s before moving to compositions of geometric shapes and clean abstract details referring to Art Deco design in 1966.

    Painted the following year in 1967, Modern Painting is demonstrative of the enthralling effects of this union between 20th century design and Lichtenstein’s own signature aesthetic. The hand-painted surface appears mechanically executed in its refined clarity, rhythmically pulsating despite the architectural solidity of its formal components. The geometric forms are boldly delineated with the thick black lines borrowed from the comic book illustrations that he appropriated in the early 1960s. A central frieze of repeated elements bisects the canvas diagonally, simultaneously challenging the orthogonal orientation of the picture plane and creating a dialogue between the monochromatic lower section and the electric flashes of primary colors in the upper part of the composition. Contrasting luminous yellow with deep cerulean blue and two crowning discs of red, Lichtenstein eloquently balances the distribution of tones across the canvas, establishing a centrifugal mechanism of chromatic energy.

    Crucially, Modern Painting exhibits a particularly exquisite mastery of Lichtenstein’s most important pictorial innovation: the Ben-Day dot. Modulating their size and density in successive bands, he articulates the effect of shading as the canvas shimmers with the vibrancy of a pointillist masterpiece. Acquired by Miles and Shirley Fiterman from the eminent Minneapolis-based Locksley Shea Gallery, the work stands as a testament to the couple’s exceptional dedication to collecting defining Pop Art masterworks as well as to their ability to access the greatest quality of works at the time of their conception.

    It was in the summer of 1966 that Lichtenstein inaugurated his engagement with Art Deco. While still working on his Brushstrokes series, the artist was commissioned to design a poster for New York City's Lincoln Center. For his subject he turned to the architecture and design of the 1920s and 1930s which was plentiful in the streets of midtown Manhattan. The following year he was commissioned to create a mural for the American Painting Now exhibition at the U.S Pavilion in Montreal. In Modern Painting for Expo 67 Lichtenstein created one of his largest murals and featured the graduated Ben-Day dots that we see replicated in the present work, also executed in 1967. Concurrent with Lichtenstein’s first European retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, this year signified the continued diversification of his subject matter as he reached an increasingly international audience.

    The machine-like precision with which Lichtenstein executed his complex compositions is particularly astounding in the present work. For several years, true mechanical painting techniques had been employed in the silkscreen processes of Andy Warhol, as well as those of Robert Rauschenberg. While Rauschenberg still indulged in expressionistic brushwork and Warhol often relished in the minute errors and misalignments of his silkscreens, Lichtenstein meticulously created a pristine and faultless surface that ostensibly eliminated any trace of human intervention. As the artist recalled in the same year that the present work was executed: “I want to hide the records of my hand” (Roy Lichtenstein, quoted in John Coplans, “Talking with Roy Lichtenstein”, Artforum, May 9, 1967, p. 34). Key to his perfection was the use of Magna paints, which were completely soluble in turpentine, allowing him to correct any minute errors without painting or scraping over them. The effect is a painting that evades its true origins and status as the product of a painter. Diverting all attention from mark making and the corporeal surface, we are drawn into a purely cerebral experience, which invites us to decode the forms as abstract decorative entities.

    As early as 1962, Lichtenstein had referenced other art historical movements, such as Picasso’s Cubism, and subsumed them within his distinct pop lexicon, Art Deco provided particularly fertile grounds for appropriation within the fine art context. Firstly, the use of the word “Modern” in the title calls into question the notion of the avant-garde – what is cutting edge and ahead of its time – and the legacy of modernism at a time when Lichtenstein himself was actively propelling art towards a new era that would be retrospectively considered post-modern. Art Deco held a particular nostalgic glamor, but it did not signify modernity in the sense of it being contemporary. As noted by Lawrence Alloway, “These tightly locked geometrics were, as the artist has pointed out, originally emblems of the future. However, enough time has passed for us to be overwhelmed by a sense of these forms' remoteness. There is a poignant sense of time as we look at the symbolic geometry that derives from a decade in which, to quote Lichtenstein, 'they felt much more modern than we feel we are now’" (Lawrence Alloway, Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1983, p. 40). Rather than drawing on the idealism of classic modernism, Lichtenstein’s interest in its decorative and commercial proponents – created by architects and industrial manufacturers rather than artists – is consistent with the leveling tendencies of Pop Art. Calling on Art Deco, he also illuminates modernist ideals as inherently outmoded in themselves.

    In Modern Painting Lichtenstein makes yet another challenge to the influential critic and champion of Abstract Expressionist painting, Clement Greenberg. In his seminal text Avant-Garde and Kitsch from 1939, Greenberg had posited a divide between “high culture”, represented by the canonical painters of art history, and the mass-produced aesthetics of decorative arts, represented by the burgeoning visual culture of the domestic sphere. Through a coolly mechanical gloss of painted forms that also eschew the expressionistic brushwork of Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting – those whom Greenberg saw to be the logical inheritors of the high modernist tradition – Lichtenstein irreverently ushers in forms that were widely considered “decorative” into the canon of art history that Greenberg sought to defend. As is perfectly illustrated in Modern Painting, for Lichtenstein all stylistic idioms, “high” or “low”, proved fertile ground to expand upon the very definition of painting. As the artist noted in 1966, “The things I have apparently parodied I actually admire” (Roy Lichtenstein, quoted in Bruce Glaser, “Oldenburg, Lichtenstein, Warhol: A Discussion”, Artforum 4, no. 6, February 1966, p. 145).

Property from the Miles and Shirley Fiterman Collection


Modern Painting

signed and dated "rf Lichtenstein '67" on the reverse
oil and Magna on canvas
48 x 60 in. (121.9 x 152.4 cm.)
Executed in 1967.

$2,000,000 - 3,000,000 

Sold for $2,900,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 16 May | On View at 432 and 450 Park Avenue