Executed in 1976, this work will be included in the catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
In the 1970s, Roy Lichtenstein turned away from his signature Pop transformations of advertisements and comic strips, and was inspired instead by the halls of museums and the pages of art books. Moving from "low" to "high" artistic sources, he created a number of series based on major avant-garde movements of 20th century art -- from Cubism and Futurism to Expressionism and Surrealism -- creating his own Pop gallery of modernist masters. In his Self-Portrait of 1976 Lichtenstein brilliantly transforms Italian Futurism into his own distinct visual idiom, replete with the benday dots and vivid primary color palette that indelibly mark the painting as the work the Pop master.
The present work is the first of Lichtenstein's mature career to be titled a self-portrait. As is usual with the witty games Lichtenstein often plays with the viewer, it remains tantalizingly ambiguous as to whether his subject is the historical self-portrait, or his own self-portrait. Considering how extensively he altered Severini's image, it would not be surprising if Lichtenstein was in fact representing his own image in this Futurist guise. Indeed, the graduated benday dots that he integrates into the image suggest his famed series of mirror paintings, alluding to the possibility that Self-Portrait captures the Pop master contemplating his image in a mirror.
Lichtenstein based Self-Portrait on a specific work which Italian artist Gino Severini painted in 1912, created at the height of the Futurist movement. Severini's self-portrait had been featured in the Museum of Modern Art's 1961 exhibition, which Lichtenstein, living in New York at the time may have seen. Working from a reproduction of the painting in 1976, Lichtenstein appropriated the image's complex painterly faceting, which Severini intended to evoke the dynamic sense of a figure moving in space, and transformed it through his coolly detached manner. Lichtenstein maintains Severini's simultaneous views of facial contours, as well as his recognizable collar and tie. Yet he freely interprets the rest of the composition, streamlining its forms in a style redolent of half-tone illustrations and comic strips. He distills Severini's formal vocabulary further abstracting this already abstracted image, calling into question the very conventions of Futurist painting. Lichtenstein, true to form, appears to pay tribute to Futurism while also wittily parodying this historic style.
In his early days as a Pop pioneer, Lichtenstein's work frequently made reference to modern art's conventions and movements, as he painted Picassos along with Popeye. Indeed, his works of the early 1970s such as Self-Portrait finds him re-engaging with notions that he explored in his 1962-64 paintings based on reproductions of works by Czanne, Mondrian and Picasso. Lichtenstein may have been prompted to look back on his career by the publication of his first retrospective monograph by Diane Waldman in 1972. Perhaps it made him think about his role as an artist in relation to modernism's canonic masters. Yet as Lichtenstein contended, he was spurred to work his way through one historic mode after another because of his visual interest in each style. He recounted, "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" (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in Roy Lichtenstein: All About Art, exh. cat., Louisiana, 2004). Although Lichtenstein self-consciously cultivated an aura of industrial production in his painting -- a crucial part of Pop's retort to the hegemony of Abstract Expressionist painterliness -- he in fact carefully honed his composition for maximum visual impact. Indeed, before painting Self-Portrait, he worked out the composition in a preparatory drawing from 1975.
The Futurist style of Self-Portrait was a particularly fitting subject for Lichtenstein on a number of levels. As Futurism set the mold for future avant-garde movements at the dawn of the 20th century, it in certain ways presaged Pop particularly in its youthful rejection of tradition and its controversial embrace of new technology. As the 1961 Museum of Modern Art catalogue described, "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 manifestoes and demonstrations, set a pattern for many art movements which followed" (J. Taylor, Futurism, New York, 1961, p. 7). By systematically reducting the jagged planes that are a hallmark of Futurism, Lichtenstein casts a sardonic eye on the movement's emotional expressiveness, yet at the same time he continues the Futurist interest in technology's impact on modern life. Lichtenstein was clearly obsessed with speed, which was reflected in the many cars and airplanes that raced through his early Pop canvases. Indeed, in his formative Pop works based on comic strips, he frequently emphasized the force lines of a punch or an explosion, denotations of movement that are mass culture derivatives of Futurism's vocabulary.