“[The still life] presents the most consistent imagistic subject theme for Lichtenstein since his cartoon Pop paintings.” (J. Cowart, ‘Decisive Appearances: The Paintings’, in Roy Lichtenstein 1970-1980, exh. cat., St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, 1981, p. 51).
In Still Life Red Apples, three apples rest on a table with a blue bottle on their right, whose top has been cut off from view. The edge of the table extends towards the background of the composition, evoking a sense of depth. However, this depth is denied by Lichtenstein’s traditionally two-dimensional style and graphic rendering of objects. His infamous Ben Day dots decrease in size as the viewer’s eye drifts across the canvas, creating a chiaroscuro effect. This stylistic tendency of using the Ben Day dots to generate subtle shading effects emerges most evidently in Lichtenstein’s later works, most notably the series of Nudes he created in the last decade of his life, placing Still Life Red Apples squarely in this later period.
Lichtenstein first turned to the still life genre in the 1970s, departing from the cartoon imagery that had propelled him to fame in the 1960s. The 1970s also saw the beginnings of further investigations with art history, appropriating the likes of other artistic movements on a general level, such as Surrealism and German Expressionism, as well as specific works by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet. Although not immediately related, Lichtenstein’s art historical inquiries and his comic book paintings illustrate his consistent and unwavering interest in art as a subject, a fascination that would continue on until the very end of his career. As Lichtenstein himself said in regards to his practice: “All my art is in some way about other art, even if the other art is cartoons.” (Roy Lichtenstein quoted in Janis Hendrickson Roy Lichtenstein 1923-1997: The Irony of the Banal, Cologne 2012, front cover). By engaging in the venerated tradition of still life, Lichtenstein expands the scope of his purview, creating a body of still lifes within his own oeuvre that span many phases of the genre, appropriating everything from Cubist versions of the genre to the more traditional compositions of the nineteenth century. Deepening and refining his art historical enquiries, Lichtenstein found in still life a tool for his own aesthetic aims: as an artist who conceived of his works as objects in their own right, the very foundation of still life resonated with his principles of replicating and mirroring.
Lichtenstein brought into his pictures not only art historical references, but also the visual culture of American contemporary life. Although the placement of apples on a table recalls the more traditional arrangements of still lifes from centuries past, the apple itself acts as both an emblem of the quotidian and Americana in its purest form. As a preeminent figure of the Pop Art movement, Lichtenstein and his fellow artists, most notably Andy Warhol, maintained a keen interest in the common, often mass produced object. As such, Pop Art has become widely known for a clever and witty blending of high and low, elevating kitsch to the status of high art, whether that be in the form of comic books or food. Although now a respected genre of art engrained within art history, the still life was often regarded amongst artists of the nineteenth century as being the lowest type of art one could produce. By returning to this genre, Lichtenstein manages to simultaneously elevate the genre of still life, the objects he is depicting, and the cartoon style in which he depicts them, making Still Life Red Apples an incredibly layered, nuanced, and humorously tongue-in-cheek work of art, and a work which allowed Lichtenstein to maintain the Pop Art spirit while branching out to different themes and subjects as his career progressed.
What makes the still life an even more perfect tool with which Lichtenstein could illustrate all the aspects of art he found most fascinating is that the still life has always been a genre primarily about formal concerns. These are not images which simply appear to the artist; they must be thoughtfully arranged before the artist can place brush to canvas. This characteristic would have been especially appealing to Lichtenstein, who saw objects more as opportunities for powerful, well-balanced designs of color, line, and shape than as things which carried great meaning. Reconstituted with all the glossy perfection of commercial image production, Lichtenstein’s still life objects are not fragile, ephemeral objects, but bold icons which have been reduced to a set of basic circular geometries. The components of Still Life Red Apples are signified purely through shape and color, stripped of textural idiosyncrasies and spatial contours.
Lichtenstein carried a fascination for the depiction of everyday objects throughout his career, morphing his early cartoon images and diner-esque driven food paintings into the later still lifes that are exemplified by Still Life Red Apples. While seemingly neutral displays of fruit on a table, they are transformed by Lichtenstein’s sharp wit and clever eye into a work of art that is simultaneously sincere and deadpan, intelligence and kitsch, parody and poetry.