This work will be included in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
Roy Lichtenstein's monumental Nude with Yellow Flower represents the triumphal return of the comic heroine in the Pop master's late career. This provocative domestic goddess, rendered in the artist's bold signature style, is a modern variation on an ancient artistic genre. Like Picasso, Renoir, and Matisse before him, Lichtenstein seized on the classic theme of the female nude late in life, using the motif to invent new creative possibilities. The Nudes became one of Lichtenstein's last major series, which was instigated in 1993 and curtailed by the artist's death in 1997. During this prolific period, he explored the theme extensively, producing prints, drawings, collages, and large canvases like the present work. Together the series has been recognized as a significant component within the artist's oeuvre. The Nudes were well represented within the recent touring retrospective organized by The Art Institute of Chicago and Tate Modern and their joyous sensuality has attracted many long-standing admirers, including the artist Jeff Koons who has declared: "The later women paintings and nudes that Roy did are absolutely gorgeous" (J. Koons in 'Conversation,' M. Francis & S. Ratibor (eds.), Lichtenstein: Girls, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York 2008, p. 16).
Each composition for the Nudes evolved out of a sophisticated process of image selection and inventive remixing. For Nude with Yellow Flower, Lichtenstein raided his archives of clippings from comics and magazines before recompiling and reinterpreting them on a vast scale. The larger-than-life beauty occupying this cozy scene is translated from a 1963 Girl's Love Stories comic book which charts the trials and tribulations of teen romance. The original image shows a swimsuit-clad model chatting on a rotary dial phone in the midst of a photo-shoot. In this painting, Lichtenstein modernizes her phone and transplants her from the commercial environment into the home, from public to private realms. He has also stripped her bare, with the fecundity of her natural state seemingly underlined by the addition of the yellow bloom in her hand and the bushy leaves of the pot plant to the left of her waist. By making these changes, Lichtenstein exploits our understanding of the visual language of the dated comics to dramatically sexualize the entire composition, turning it from a relatively benign scene of female objectification to a tableau that crackles with sexual frisson.
Lichtenstein's first nudes emerged out of a concurrent series of Interiors paintings, which caricatured the lavish spreads of pristine homes in magazines like Architectural Digest. The Interiors focused on a subject that has long captured the fascination of Pop artists: the myth of blissful bourgeois domesticity. They depict rooms cobbled together from illustrations of furniture and reproductions of artworks and all lack a human presence to bring the spaces alive. As the series evolved Lichtenstein gradually took the pictures of nudes off the walls and allowed women to inhabit these ultra-cool environments. In doing so, Lichtenstein ensured his muses remained as carefully edited and stylized as the furnishings that surround them. The calculated arrangement of motifs and the somewhat incongruous quality of Nude with Yellow Flower pays tribute to a seminal work of Pop art: Richard Hamilton's Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? which brought the buff imagery of American men's physique magazines and semi-clad sirens into a domestic realm filled with all the trappings of an idealized middle-class lifestyle. Yet Nude with Yellow Flower is less a commentary on consumer culture and more a reflection on art itself. The subject of the nude fulfilled Lichtenstein's fascination with strong visual and cultural clichés as well as his preoccupation with style and form. It enabled him to make a knowing and witty nod to art historical precedents, including that of his own world-famous oeuvre. The result was a double loop of appropriation that exemplified new approaches to visual practice in the post-modern era.
Presenting the comic-book girls in the nude within composite scenes meant they were not a straight redux of what had gone before. They instead provided a vehicle for Lichtenstein's continued testing of formal artistic methods. In Nude with Yellow Flower diagonal stripes and Benday dots simultaneously evoke and flatten the picture's depth of field. These graphic techniques, typically used as short-hand to define shadow and volume, spill over the girl's curvaceous body and onto her surroundings, creating a peculiar spatial conundrum that highlights the artificiality and unreliability of the image. "My nudes are part light and shade, and so are the backgrounds, with dots to indicate the shade," Lichtenstein explains. "The dots are also graduated from large to small, which usually suggests modeling in people's minds, but that's not what you get with these figures. I don't really know why I chose nudes. I'd never done them before, so that was maybe something, but I also felt chiaroscuro would look good on a body. And with my nudes there's so little sense of body flesh or skin tones--they're so unrealistic--that using them underscored the separation between reality and artistic convention" (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in M. Kimmelman, PORTRAITS, Talking with Artists at the Met, The Modern, The Louvre and Elsewhere, 1995, reproduced at www.lichtensteinfoundation.org).
Lichtenstein's art may be defined by the tension that exists between subject and object. The paradox of his work has always remained that its outward embrace of quotidian imagery belies an inward concern for art as arrangements of colors and shapes. Lichtenstein continually repeated the mantra that even if his work looks like it depicts something, it is always essentially a flat two-dimensional image. But the narrative aspects of his pictures often win out. In the early 1960s he usually chose to depict women in a moment of vulnerability, suspense, or worry to evoke an irrepressible sense of empathy in the viewer, while the simultaneous war paintings of explosions and soldiers are all aggression and decisive action. The war and romance series both select tense, climactic moments when the conventional images of masculinity and femininity are at their most extreme. Tellingly, the dates of these comic inspired paintings correspond with Lichtenstein's marital break-up and his choice of themes appear more than coincidental. The duality of the subjects may well have helped him to cope with the hopes and disappointments of this tumultuous time, while also indicating his pessimism in the stereotypical love story. By 1965, Lichtenstein had finalized his divorce and he gradually phased out the comic imagery, perhaps having fulfilled his psychological need. It seems the revival of the comic heroine in the 1990s, now in the nude, may also relate to Lichtenstein's personal life as they have very recently been linked to an affair with a younger woman that he was engaged in at that time. This may explain why, several decades later, his re-appropriation of comic sources yielded more serene, but less chaste females. Indeed, Nude with Yellow Flower has a confidence and overt sexuality unseen in the earlier waiting, stammering, or distraught protagonists. This is a woman of a new generation, confident and assured, and with a visual intensity brought alive by her undeniable eroticism. "The 1990s nudes take pleasure in their own company,' Avis Berman observes, 'without the slightest hint of needing or missing a man. They are not paralyzed by their emotions. In contrast to Lichtenstein's original romance-comic pictures, this world flourishes exuberantly without men or engagement rings or kisses. The older norm didn't disappear, but needed to be adjusted. Even as he updated the stereotypes of erotic fantasies, Lichtenstein wove them into the consistent narrative of his own carrier" (A. Berman, '"Joy and Bravura and Irreverence": Roy Lichtenstein and Images of Women,' in Roy Lichtenstein-Classic of the New, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Bregenz, Vienna 2005, p. 143).