Executed in 1996, this work will be included in the catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
Roy Lichtenstein's painted bronze Coup de Chapeau II of 1996 is one of the artist's most engaging sculptures, wittily illustrating his Pop style translated into three dimensions. It exudes the signature visual style that Lichtenstein developed in his seminal Pop oeuvre of the 1960s, including such hallmarks as cartoon-derived imagery, a pared-down color scheme and boldly distilled graphic form--as well as a distinct sense of humor. As is characteristic of Lichtenstein's three-dimensional work, this sculpture is frontal and flat recalling his famous Pop painting style, so that as the viewer walks around the sculpture it virtually disappears when seen from the side, then snaps into full view.
In this composition, a hat perhaps blown off a comic strip character's head now bursts through a cloud and leaves an explosion in its wake. This witty visual plays on the French phrase coup de chapeau, which translates to "tip of the hat," a display of respect. Created in Lichtenstein's last years, the work irreverently and poignantly commemorates the artist's accomplished career.
Coup de Chapeau II connects with the artist himself, as it relates to a self-portrait made in the same year, the painting titled Coup de Chapeau (Self Portrait), the very last self-portrait he created. Through his instantly recognizable visual syntax of Benday dots and bracing primary colors, Lichtenstein humorously depicts himself as a square-jawed gentleman whose hat has been violently propelled into the air by an unseen force, knocking off his glasses and setting off an explosion that conceals his eyes. The title plays upon the French word coup, which by itself signifies a blow or strike -- but what strikes the artist here? The explosion that conceals his eyes suggests being dumb-struck, and since the motif of a burst of light had appeared in his work as shorthand for inspiration, or the shock of the new, we infer that the artist depicts himself in a moment of creative awe, which sets the tip of the hat in motion. Indeed, a preliminary sketch for the painted self-portrait was inscribed by the artist "Self Portrait (Man hit by the 21st Century)," presenting himself as being blasted with anticipation of the next millennium. While the figure has disappeared in Coup de Chapeau II, its dynamic composition nevertheless reverberates with the exhilaration conveyed in the self-portrait.
The uncanny character of Lichtenstein's floating hat summons to mind Magritte's bowler hats, which appeared throughout the surrealist master's oeuvre and became an emblem of his transformation of the everyday into the enigmatic. Magritte's The Great War obscures the face of a staid bourgeois gentleman with an apple that hovers in front of him, while his bowler hat floats unperturbed upon his head. Lichtenstein maintains a sense of the absurd, while upturning Magritte's omnipresent black hat with the force of a Pop explosion.
Coup de Chapeau II richly connects with numerous other significant works in Lichtenstein's career. The motif of the comic book-derived explosion recurred with frequency in seminal Pop works such as Whaam! of 1963 (Tate Modern). Indeed, the creative force of the new Pop movement was perhaps best summed up in the artist's 1966 "Pop," which embeds the word punctuated with an exclamation point in a blast of color, playing on the movement's name and the sound abstractly represented through visual form. In the 1960s, Lichtenstein created potent images to "jolt us out of complacency with something we had never seen before, a visual outrage that seemed once threatening and tonic," eminent art historian Robert Rosenblum reminisced.
Sculpture was a vital part of Lichtenstein's oeuvre for much of his career, playfully translating space into two dimensions and back into three, in much the same way cubists' became concerned with sculpture. In a 1967 interview, Lichtenstein declared, "I was interested in putting two-dimensional symbols on a three-dimensional object" (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in J. Coplans, Roy Lichtenstein, 1967, p. 16). In the 1960s he created a series of sculptures that explored explosions in free-standing and wall-mounted variations, which would later reincarnate in the center of Coup de Chapeau II. During the 1990s the artist's sculptural work flourished. Lichtenstein typically conceived his sculptures by sketching them out on paper, as exemplified in a 1995 sketch for Coup de Chapeau II. This drawing reveals how the artist developed the composition, choosing to turn the hat upwards and adding a double brim that dramatizes the action of tipping through the device of simultaneous narration familiar from cartoons.
Lichtenstein had used sculpture to pay his respects before, most explicitly in his Salute to Painting that was installed at the Walker Art Center in 1986, part of his celebrated "brushstrokes" series. Coup de Chapeau II shares with this monument an insistent verticality that harks back the most elemental ancient monuments, now reincarnated by Lichtenstein as an off-kilter Pop obelisk.