Roy Lichtenstein - Contemporary Art Part I New York Monday, November 8, 2010 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC# 839); Private collection, Texas; Private collection, Los Angeles; Gagosian Gallery, New York; Acquired directly from the above by the present owner (1988)

  • Exhibited

    New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein: Recent Paintings, 1979

  • Catalogue Essay

    Image © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
    “They’re just a mixture of every kind of Indian design from Northwest Indians to Plains Indians to Pueblo.  They are no particular tribe of Indians.  It’s just everything that people vaguely associated with Indians…Anything that I could think of that was ‘Indian’ got into them.” – Roy Lichtenstein (G. Stavitsky and T. Johnson, Roy Lichtenstein American Indian Encounters, Canada, 2006, p. 25)
    “Then I turned to Indian Surrealism, probably under the influence of Max Ernst who did some Surrealist work that was related to the American West and featured certain Native American themes.  I did a series in the 1950s that used Native American designs to make figures.  These early paintings were more Expressionist in character.  In the later paintings [such as Indian Composition, 1979] I used the patterns from Indian blankets or pottery to represent figures of some kind. […] Of course, there were many tribes and many different kinds of designs of Native Americans who had little contact with one another.  These designs and motifs are all piled into one painting because they remind me of the concept of Native American work” (R. Lichtenstein, “A review of my work since 1961: a slide presentation,” Roy Lichtenstein, Cambridge, 2009).
    Perhaps no artist of the twentieth century has employed such a recognizable visual vocabulary as Roy Lichtenstein.  His signature palette of bold primary colors - mostly reds, yellows and blues - set against neutral blocks of black, white and gray create a stunningly dynamic canvas from which his Benday dots and bold lines emerge.  He is as well known for this very technique as he is for the subjects he paints.  His art is based on both the visual culture of mass media and in the annals of art history.  This approach to painting is both unique in its style and emblematic of the times in its use of appropriation.  Culling inspiration from Surrealism and Native American imagery, Two Figures, Indian is a rare piece from Lichtenstein’s short American Indian period from 1979 through 1981. 
    This was not Lichtenstein’s first foray into the subject.  In the late 1950s he approached the same topic of American Indian symbols and iconography, coining the term Amerindian to refer to his work.  His interest in the subject stemmed in part from the sheer visual splendor of Native American imagery as well as from a desire to explore the true roots of American mythology.  During the 1940s and 50s many of the European artists who had moved to New York began to explore images of the American West.  The rich symbolism and legends of Native American cultural heritage were of undeniable lure and fascination to the Surrealists.  Chief among these were René Magritte, Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst.
    In this way all of Lichtenstein’s works are fundamentally conversations with both art history and popular culture. Strongly influenced by some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, Lichtenstein both adopted and ran from the effect they had on his art.  He once said that he spent his entire career running away from the particular influence of Picasso, yet he also admitted that he was never fully able to escape it.   The present composition brings to mind Picasso’s Woman with a Blue Hat from 1939 in both its reduction of forms and composition.  Indeed, describing the inspiration for his paintings, Lichtenstein once stated, "I think the aesthetic influence on me is probably more Cubism than anything. I think even the cartoons themselves are influenced by Cubism, because the hard-edged character which is brought about by the printing creates a kind of cubist look that perhaps wasn't intended" (A. d'Offay, ed., Some Kind of Reality, London, 1997, p. 7). 
    The connection between Cubism and African imagery is very much the same as the connection that some Surrealists made with Native American imagery.   Lichtenstein said, “Max Ernst had some American Indian images.  In the ‘50s I had done American Indian things that were very similar to these…[They] were cubist variations using Indian subject matter.  In a sense, say that Picasso used African things, America made (use of) Indian things.  However, I was still so heavily influenced by Picasso and expressionism that it was in spite of rather than because of the Indian subject matter” (G. Stavitsky and T. Johnson, Roy Lichtenstein American Indian Encounters, Canada, 2006, p. 24).
    Two Figures, Indian is a particularly remarkable piece as it blends together this variety of influences.  The Native American imagery is prevalent – an amalgam of different traditions including the Navajos and the Acoma and Zuni Pueblos of New Mexico (world renowned for the bold graphics of their pottery).  Lichtenstein was not aiming for historical accuracy but rather hoping to fuse together the images that have come to represent the American West.  The deep reds, warm yellows and cool blocks of gray are colors that are both typical of Lichtenstein as well as of Native American imagery.  The highly stylized bold parallel lines and zigzag patterns are as much at home on a beautiful piece of pottery as they are on his canvas.  The painting is ripe with imagery including an eagle’s beak, brightly colored feathers, arrow markings and a bear paw - all traditionally symbolic.  He has reduced these forms and figures down to their most geometric elemental components, seeing the beauty and potential of the Native American motifs. 
    Approaching this painting on the heels of his Surrealist exploration from 1973-1979, the elements are rendered in much the same way as Picasso would distort his women or the Surrealists would alter their forms.  The Surrealists sought to expose the unconscious by presenting ordinary objects or people in highly stylized and unlikely contexts, creating works that were both ephemeral and dreamlike.  With this in mind, undoubtedly the main focal points of the painting are the two eyes, iconic symbols of Surrealism, considered to be windows into the unconscious.  The importance given to the eyes in this painting also pay homage to Lichtenstein’s bright eyed heroines from his comic strip paintings or his famous Girl with Tear from his Surrealist series.  The eyes are highlighted by two eyebrows which are rendered almost as quotations.  Lichtenstein once said: “[It’s] like a Northwest Coast totem pole eye, except it has…an eyebrow.  Mine is definitely a cartoon eyebrow’” (G. Stavitsky and T. Johnson, Roy Lichtenstein American Indian Encounters, Canada, 2006, p. 28)
    To fully understand this series it is also necessary to turn to the political and cultural atmosphere at the time.  During the late 1970s there was a renewed interest in Native American art and culture.  It was not only highly visible thanks to a variety of exhibitions and publications but also due to significant press, particularly in the New York Times, on the American Indian Movement and the Red Power Movement.  The leaders of these organizations were demanding changes in reservations policies and the honoring of treaty obligations.  Chief among these leaders was Russell Means (an Ogala Sioux who lead an uprising at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota during the spring of 1973), who captured the attention of Andy Warhol in his 1976 series, The American Indian.  Warhol was a good friend of Lichtenstein’s and one of these portraits was reproduced on the inside cover of Art in America in March 1979, shortly before Lichtenstein began anew his work on the Amerindian paintings.
    In the spring of 1979, several of the paintings from the Amerindian series were exhibited at the Leo Castelli Gallery, including the present work.  His Study for Two Figures, Indian, also from 1979, was featured in Symbols and Scenes: Art by and About American Indians, a permanent collection-based show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1980.  It was not again until 2005 that this series would be re-examined in an exhibit uniquely devoted to it at the Montclair Art Museum called Roy Lichtenstein: American Indian Encounters.
    Woven throughout Lichtenstein’s work, like a very detailed tapestry is a thread of post-Modern image appropriation.  Two Figures, Indian is an amalgam of signature Lichtenstein – it is both a portrait and a still life, it draws inspiration from both Surrealism and Cubism; from Native American imagery and from comic books.  He references some of the most prolific artists of the twentieth century but none so much as he references himself.  Whether intended or subliminal, these visual nods embody Lichtenstein and have made him one of the preeminent masters. 


Two figures, Indian

Oil and magna on canvas.
70 3/4 x 86 3/4 in. (179.7 x 220.3 cm).
Signed and dated “© Roy Lichtenstein ‘79” on the reverse.

$3,000,000 - 5,000,000 

Sold for $3,890,500

Contemporary Art Part I

8 November 2010
New York