This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
Executed in 1962, only a year after Roy Lichtenstein had begun to create what would soon become his hallmark images culled from cartoons and other popular media, The Rings is an early and important painting that helped to herald him in as a major innovator of modern art. Already in his late thirties when he suddenly turned against the subjectivity and romantic otherworldliness that had become attached to painting, Lichtenstein purposefully adopted a controlled, repetitive production method to reflect; he reevaluated the reality of art. The Rings forms part of a group of paintings produced between 1961-1962, that focussed on solitary household objects such as sneakers, hot dogs and golf balls, in which Lichtenstein defined and solidified his ideas.
It was in 1962 that Lichtenstein truly consolidated his style, and exhibited his works for the first time with the Leo Castelli Gallery. This marked his quick and sudden entry into the controversial role of a Pop art figurehead. Lichtenstein's return to blatant representation signaled a crisis of major proportions to an art world then dominated by painterly abstraction. By presenting real objects from the type of mass media that cultured people despised, Lichtenstein appeared to be launching an assault on the sacred universalism that abstract painting held dear. Added to this insult was his hand painted replication of benday dots, which eschewed romantic traditions of the artist's personal touch by mirroring the mechanized production techniques of cheap merchandizing. With paintings like The Rings, which presents an engagement ring and wedding ring as if they were lifted directly from the pages of a product catalogue for prospective bridegrooms, Lichtenstein asserted his interest was not real objects, but pictures that were already codified as signs. The rings depicted in this painting retain the particular form of a real object, yet Lichtenstein deliberately enhances their artificiality to convey that pictures are entirely fictional -- a concept that modernizes and extends upon Rene Magritte's paradoxical painting of a pipe (La trahison des images, 1928-9).
An art that addressed itself to semiotics was unfamiliar in the early 1960s and Lichtenstein's radical appropriation of banal, everyday advertizements for his celebrated single object paintings serve to examine the way images are marketed in advertising as guides to life. Unlike Warhol, whom he would first meet through the Castelli Gallery in 1961, Lichtenstein chose to present objects devoid of logos or salesmanship, avoiding the branding aspect of commercial imagery and removing the items from their original context to achieve the pictorial completeness and absoluteness he desired. Without contextualization, Lichtenstein's single object paintings, such as The Rings, are frustratingly incomplete, disrupting our desire for narrative, forcing the viewer to analyze the image on its own terms.
For Lichtenstein, an artist who had developed a concern for form through years of working within an Abstract Expressionist mode of painting, the relation of a mark or an object to the picture plane was of utmost importance. Asserting the picture plane as a static, finite zone was his main motivation and nowhere is this more emphatically stated than in his single object series, which avoid the narrative and temporal qualities of his comic based works. Paintings like The Rings underline his overriding concern with formalism and the idea of spatiality in two dimensional art, which he qualified by stating: "I think that these objects, the golf ball, the frankfurter, and so on, there is an anti-Cubist composition. You pick an object and put it on a blank ground. I was interested in non-Cubist composition. The idea is contrary to the major direction of art since the early Renaissance, which has more and more symbolized the integration of 'figure' and 'ground'"(R. Lichtenstein, quoted in J. Coplans, Roy Lichtenstein: An Interview, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Cat. No. 424, 1967). The tension between figure and ground in The Rings is its major strength. The objects depicted retain their original, legible identity but their scale and flatness pushes them to the limits of abstraction. Executed before the artist began using projectors to assist with the enlargement of his imagery, the stark, centralized illustration of two rings occupy the picture plane emblematically, their monumental presence having attained something from the impact of minimalist art. Using the benday process to systematize his mark-making into standardized units, Lichtenstein destroys any sense of depth by diffusing the contours of the rings with small dots, thereby reconciling the object with the flat plane on which it is placed. "I think that every mark you make, every line you put down, can't bear relationships to representation or representational space at the moment it is being put down", Lichtenstein explained of the then shocking automation of his painting practice, "It has to be divorced from that and become part of the painting space. This must be true whether the work is abstract or representational" (R. Lichtenstein cited in D. Waldman, Roy Lichtenstein, London, 1971, p.26).
The enlistment of parody complicates the reading of Lichtenstein's work, but by reproducing the reproduced he aims to draw attention to the way people are compelled to apply meaning and value to the most basic signs. Just as Marcel Duchamp had challenged the notion of authorship by placing readymade items in a gallery context, Lichtenstein challenged the notion of "high" and "low" art by making the re-presentation of commercial art his work's explicit focus. Lichtenstein reconfigures objects like those in The Rings by suppressing or exaggerating certain aspects of the found image, turning them into Platonic ideals, or what the artist calls, "a powerful cliché" which he has subjected to his own conceptual ends. Although we maybe tempt to read greater meaning into these objects, particularly with wedding rings, inherently loaded with social significance, this work differs vastly from other paintings from this period that could conceivably be put into a sequence or theme, such as The Engagement Ring (1961) and The Ring (1962). These two works feature soap-operatic moments of proposals between two comic book couples. In the former painting, a pensive blonde looks quizzically at her dashing beau and stammers, "It's...it's not an engagement ring. Is it?", whilst the latter features a close-up on a man's hand at the point of sliding a ring onto his fiancée's finger. Unlike these distinctly narrative paintings, The Rings' bold, isolated form removes it from symbolic associations, thereby moving away from real life and toward pure art. In this way, this groundbreaking work fulfils Lichtenstein's aims to be neither abstract nor realistic, but to establish a new form of art based on the analysis of signs and sign systems.
26014326: Roy Lichtenstein, Large Jewels, 1963. Museum Ludwig, Cologne. (c)Estate of Roy Lichtenstein, NY.
24414890: Roy Lichtenstein, Watch, 1963. (c)Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.
26014319: Roy Lichtenstein, Diamond Clip, 1962. Collection of Mr. Irving Blum. (c)Estate of Roy Lichtenstein, NY.