Executed in 1995, this work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
Sizzling with veiled sexuality, Nude with Red Shirt marks Roy Lichtenstein's triumphal return to the comic-book sources from the 1960s which defined him as one of the major painters of the twentieth century. His iconic Girls heralded the end of Abstract Expressionism and his return to the curvaceous contours of the female form in the 1990s possessed the same visual and emotional intensity of his earlier iconic paintings, yet in these works the artist introduced a new, more contemporary generation of female protagonists. While still taking his cue from the comic books of his youth, in Nude with Red Shirt the artist's earlier renditions of love-struck teenagers have been replaced by confident figures that are no longer waiting for a man to bring them happiness--they know what they want and are out to get it.
Caught in her bedroom, in the very private act of dressing, the naked figure of a woman is captured as she slips her red shirt over her shoulders. The contours of her slender figure are rendered in Lichtenstein's unique visual language; a mixture of Ben-day dots contained within the serpentine sweeps of bold, defining outlines. These marks are evidence of Lichtenstein's skillful understating of the language of graphic communication, in that despite the reductive nature of her figure, the artist's amalgamation of dots and lines still conveys all the seductive sensuality of any classic painted nude. But, lurking in the shadows--disrupting this seemingly innocent narrative--the head of an anonymous female figure breaks into the picture frame from the left, introducing a tangible sense of tension into the composition. Who is this woman? Why is she looking and does our heroine know she is being observed?
Based on an image taken from a 1967 Secret Hearts romance-comic entitled 'Reaching for Happiness: Can you be thrilled by one man while you're in love with another?' Nude with Red Shirt employs the classic graphic lexicon that Lichtenstein began exploring in the 1960s. In common with his early paintings, Nude with Red Shirt examines the language of visual communication--how signs and symbols act as a visual shorthand for comprehending what we see. Lichtenstein reduces the rich, infinitesimally nuanced amounts of visual detail that we absorb in our daily lives and reduces them to a beautifully simple series of lines and dots accentuated by bold splashes of color. With these simple devices he is able to construct a narrative that is as striking as it is subtle. As art historian Avis Berman points out, "The romance-comic paintings allowed Lichtenstein to play with what we think we see versus what we actually see--the ambiguities of perception that he constantly explored in his art" (A. Berman, "Joy and Bravura and Irreverence: Roy Lichtenstein and Images of Women," in E. Schneider (ed.), Roy Lichtenstein: Classic of the New, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2005, p. 138).
Unlike his fellow Pop artist Andy Warhol, who appropriated mass-produced and commercial images to highlight their formal and aesthetic qualities, Lichtenstein subtly manipulates the original composition to upset the seemingly familiar narrative with dramatic effect. In the original comic book image the heroine, Karen, is pictured in a room with her sister, discussing her upcoming date with a man she is clearly not in love with. In Lichtenstein's composition the speech bubbles are removed and the decor is updated slightly. But perhaps the two most dramatic changes are the removal of Karen's slip--leaving her naked and vulnerable--and moving the voyeur's head to the left slightly, making it less obtrusive and therefore more mysterious. By making these relatively small compositional changes, Lichtenstein exploits our understanding of the visual language of comic books to dramatically sexualizes the entire composition, turning it from a relatively benign scene of pre-date preparations to a tableau that crackles with sexual frisson.
Lichtenstein's 1960s series of Girl paintings drew on the already slightly dated comic books published for the burgeoning post-war teenage market. The plotline of these stories typically follows a young girl who falls in love with a young man; a serious problem arises to threaten the relationship, and the heroine is briefly devastated before an inevitable happy conclusion. These subjects fulfilled Lichtenstein's fascination with strong visual and cultural clichés as well as his preoccupation with form and style. By selecting and amplifying the romance genre beyond all normal bounds of scale in works like Nude with Red Shirt, Lichtenstein sharpens its essential content-- pointing out how adolescent notions of love are consistently reinforced through representation in popular culture. The romance comics are essentially illustrated soap operas aimed at readers presumably navigating the treacherous waters of love for the very first time. Yet Lichtenstein's paintings address an audience of sophisticated adults that will mostly have found love to be at odds with its idyllic promise. Nevertheless, few among us ever completely give up on the dream of perfect love, as the endless stream of Hollywood romantic comedies attest to every year.
After a lengthy period away from his comic-book inspired motifs, Lichtenstein returned to this source for one of his last great paintings of Nudes paintings in 1993. Following his expansive retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum in New York that year, Lichtenstein began to look again at the female figure and began working on a series of large scale, more provocative images. Sheena Wagstaff, in her chapter on Lichtenstein's late Nudes in the catalogue for the artist's current retrospective organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and Tate Modern, argues that this return to the female form was more than revisiting old ground, it was a considered attempt to invoke his favorite subject matter with a new, more powerful syntax, "In the Nudes, not only did Lichtenstein alter the equation in the compositional tension between motif and formal concerns, but also crucially, he seized upon a new pictorial language" (S. Wagstaff, "Late Nudes," Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 2012, p. 95).
In Nude with Red Shirt, Lichtenstein adopts a subject that had long been the favorite of painters throughout history. From Edgar Degas' Baigneuse to Henri Matisse's Odalisques and particularly Pablo Picasso's paintings of his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, the voyeuristic view of a woman in her intimate moments had long been a staple of painting. But in Nude with Red Shirt, Lichtenstein subverts the male gaze by introducing a female voyeur. Suddenly the established narrative becomes disrupted--the woman is still the object of the gaze, but whose gaze? Who is watching who? This type of female gaze becomes less threatening, but as a result it becomes more sexual. The photo of Karen's boyfriend on her nightstand hints that the protagonist's sexuality is more fluid than the wholesome 1960s girl that Lichtenstein uses as his inspiration. Social attitudes have changed in the thirty years since Lichtenstein first depicted his lovelorn 'All-American' wholesome girl, and Lichtenstein has responded to that shift. "Lichtenstein hit upon deliberately provocative subject matter in his Nudes, begun in earnest when the artist turned seventy years old," Wagstaff concludes, "Their undeniable frisson of pictorial eroticism both problematizes a compositional architecture's integrity and highlights Lichtenstein's supreme mastery of form, distilled over a lifetime of pursuing technical perfection (ibid.).
As Sheena Wagstaff notes, "The nude is an accomplished symbol of desire whose appeal, from antiquity to the present day, also lies in its potential for formal perfection. It represents perfect design material, reduced to simplified forms ready for inclusion in artistic compositions" (S. Wagstaff, ibid). Although often regarded as a blunt instrument, in Lichtenstein's hands the artist's comic-book source comes alive with a palpable sense of tension that leaves the viewer searching for the narrative conclusion to the scenario that Lichtenstein has initiated. By ingeniously relying on widely understood conventions, Lichtenstein plays with what the cultural critic Edward Said called the tension between what is represented and what is not represented, between the articulate and the silent. All of which results in painting that continues Lichtenstein's career-long decision of subverting convention and produces a painting that continues to crackle with both visual and emotional excitement.