Executed in 1961, this work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
Like Kazimir Malevich's Black Square of 1915, which to some degree this painting resembles, Roy Lichtenstein's I Can See the Whole Room and There's Nobody in It! is a singular and iconic work that encapsulates a sense of its creator's entire oeuvre and serves as a foundation stone upon which much of it was built. Painted in the summer of 1961, this deceptively simple yet deeply significant and celebrated painting is one of the very first of Lichtenstein's pictures to draw solely on cartoon imagery for its subject-matter and to invoke what is perhaps the central theme of his work as a whole: the complex relationship between art and perception.
With its stark minimalist image of a monochrome black canvas suddenly punctured by the startling and illuminated presence of a cartoon male figure opening and looking through a peephole, I Can See the Whole Room is a spirited work that appears to visually disrupt the nature of both what a painting is and what it can be. It also serves as a pictorial symbol of the dramatic transition from abstraction to cartoon figuration that had suddenly taken place in Lichtenstein's own art in 1961. An exemplar example of the artist's highly intellectual approach to painting, I Can See the Whole Room is an undeniable early masterpiece of Lichtenstein's pioneering and "Pop"-defining vision that was eagerly recognised as such by Emily and Burton Tremaine, who acquired it for their collection very soon after it was painted.
Considered consummate collectors of their age, Emily and Burton Tremaine were also the most prescient: among the first to understand and appreciate "Pop" art, they came to play an important supporting role during the early years of its genesis in America, even facilitating introductions between some of its leading members. As Emily Tremaine remembered, "about 1961, a comet flashed across this dark scene with a blazing light and we saw objects we really had not seen before. We were too busy looking within, but now we looked out and saw a 'Yankee Doodle' world of pop bottles, trading stamps, and comic strips. This was 'Pop Art', and it painted the wonderful, vulgar, jazzy, free, and crazy New York. It was not like Dada: the artists did not know one another; no-one was angry; there was no manifesto. They were just aware of the same images, but they used them differently.... We made several visits to Andy (Warhol's) studio; we saw Jimmy Dine's and Tom Wesselmann's and James Rosenquist's and Roy Lichtenstein's. Once or twice we invited these boys to our apartment and in several instances they had not yet met one another. I remember in particular that Rosenquist met Lichtenstein for the first time here. So it seemed to me quite clear that this was not a group movement with members influencing each other, but a general sensitivity that was occurring simultaneously. Each artist was commenting on our environment in his own individual way, but with no great popular approval as far as I could see" (E. Tremaine quoted in The Tremaine Collection 20th Century Masters, exh. cat., Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, pp. 21 and 29).
With its simple but paradoxical sense of both looking toward and being looked at, I Can See the Whole Room is also a work that, like Pop art in general, opens up an entirely new world of conceptual possibilities for painting. And in this respect it is a work that emphatically anticipates the direction in which not only Lichtenstein's art would develop over the ensuing years, but also that of many of his contemporaries in the 1960s. As Jeff Koons has recently noted of Lichtenstein's oeuvre, there is a pervasive sense running through it "that he is really interested in you as a viewer," and also in you "sharing this experience" (J. Koons, quoted in "Dorothy Lichtenstein and Jeff Koons, Florent Restaurant, Gansvoort Street, New York, April 11, 2008," in Lichtenstein Girls, exh. cat., Gagosian, New York, 2008, p. 11). With its deliberate undermining of conventional notions of looking and seeing and its Bruce Nauman-like title emblazoned over its surface in a bold and unashamed text invading the picture-plane, I Can See the Whole Room and There's Nobody in It! is a work of "Pop" art that also articulates and epitomizes, both in style and content, many of the concerns and inquiries of the Minimalist and Conceptual developments of the 1960s.
At four by four feet wide, it is a comparatively large and imposing picture, whose overt painterly surface texture, hand-drawn text, graphic markings, and underlying pencil script, reveal much of the pictorial craft that surprisingly, perhaps, lies at the very center of Lichtenstein's cartoon paintings. In his later pictures, Lichtenstein often sought to mask the craft, the design, and the carefully considered alterations he put into translating a cartoon image into a successful oil painting by attempting to conceal it all behind a pristine and seemingly cold, mechanically-produced surface. But, in 1961, and as this work shows, Lichtenstein was still clearly fascinated with the extraordinary painterly dialogue between abstraction and mechanically-produced figurative cartoon imagery that had been established by his appropriation of such media.
Like its subject matter--a graphic contrast of a cartoon figure with an abstract black monochrome field--I Can See the Whole Room is a painting that visually appears to play on the edge of both abstract and figurative cartoon styles. Despite its often clinical appearance in reproduction, the flat monochrome black surface of this painting betrays a clear sense of its own making through a sequence of smooth, sweeping brushstrokes, whose autonomy and plasticity has been allowed to remain visible. These are overt painterly qualities that reflect Lichtenstein's enjoyment in the process of creating the work and that in some respects can be seen as sly nods to the black paintings of contemporary "abstract" painters like Ad Reinhardt or even Franz Kline. Similarly, the flesh tones of the cartoon male figure have been attained with the subtle use of a grey wash, laid down before a regularized pattern of little flecks of red has been added. This deft and painterly simulation of the mechanical techniques of cartoon imagery would soon evolve into the more sterile mechanized discs of Lichtenstein's trademark Benday Dot circles. Lichtenstein's application of the yellow light of the background in the present work has been put down in two coats, whose differences have been deliberately left visible in order to advertise the working practice involved in the creation of the image. The first, a warmer, duller color, has subsequently been corrected and heightened with a thicker layer of extreme acid yellow that gives the apparent surprise of the cartoon image its full bite. In an extremely rare move, too, symptomatic only of these early canvases, Lichtenstein has added his monogram signature in red in the lower right hand corner of the work.
These are all comparatively traditional features of the painter's art and of a consideration of the picture as a hand-crafted image that reflect to some extent how conventional Lichtenstein's painterly practice was despite the radical, unorthodox, and, in the early 1960s, shocking, nature of his appropriation of cheap, mass-media imagery as the subject matter of his art. Reflective of a pure painter's concern with his work, these features are ones that distinguish Lichtenstein's early paintings from his later works, while also overtly illustrating how intensely Lichtenstein was deconstructing the conventions of picture making. As Donald Judd was among the first to point out at this time, "Lichtenstein is representing representation--which is very different from simply representing an object or a view. The main quality of the work comes from the contrast between the comic panel, apparently copied, and the art, nevertheless present" (D. Judd, "A critical review of the 1963 exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery," Arts Magazine, New York, November 1963).
It was, in fact, precisely the surprise and shock of the extraordinary visual power of such a crude, simple, and artificial mode of representation as that of a cartoon, when seen in direct comparison with his own more "arty" explorations of abstract pictorial form that had led to Lichtenstein's adoption of cartoon imagery in the first place. By 1961, Lichtenstein had been painting for more than fifteen years and, for the last five of those years, primarily abstractions, before he introduced comic-book imagery into his work. Following in the footsteps of an artist such as Willem de Kooning--who would absent-mindedly sketch from all types of media representation, even the television screen, in his search to establish what he called a "slipping glimpse" of life through a single strong graphic line or dynamic pictorial motif--Lichtenstein at first sought to derive a similar kind of inspiration from cartoon imagery. He was attracted by the simple mechanics of cartoon representation, by the abstract strength of line in the way a cartoon artist would draw an eyebrow, for example, and ultimately sought in the strong linearity of cartoon draughtsmanship a prompt or spur for his own Abstract Expressionist style. "I was sort of immersed in Abstract Expressionism," Lichtenstein recalled; "It was a kind of Abstract Expressionism with cartoons within the expressionist image. It's too hard to picture, I think, and the paintings themselves weren't very successful. I've got rid of most of them, in fact all of them. They encompassed about six months. I did abstract paintings of sort of striped brushstrokes and within these in a kind of scribbly way were images of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny. In doing these paintings I had, of course, the original strip cartoons to look at, and the idea of doing one without apparent alteration just occurred to me. I first discussed it and thought about it for a little bit, and I did one really almost half seriously to get an idea of what it might look like. And as I was painting this painting, I kind of got interested in organizing it as a painting and brought it to some kind of conclusion as an aesthetic statement, which I hadn't really intended to do to begin with. And then I really went back to my other way of painting, which was pretty abstract. Or tried to. But I had this cartoon painting in my studio, and it was a little too formidable. I couldn't keep my eyes off it, and it sort of prevented me from painting any other way, and then I decided this stuff was really serious. I had sort of decided that as I was working on it, but at first the change was a little bit too strong for me. Having been more or less schooled as an Abstract Expressionist, it was quite difficult psychologically to do anything else" (R. Lichtenstein "BBC Interview with David Sylvester," recorded in New York, January 1966, and reproduced in Some Kind of Reality: Roy Lichtenstein exh. cat., Anthony D'Offay, London, 1997, p. 7).
Soon Lichtenstein realized that a painterly truth lay within these clichd, mechanically-produced cartoon images--images which, because of the simplistic mechanics of their construction, were fascinating, both figuratively and abstractly. Maturing in an era in America in which painting was dominated by either the gestural or the non-gestural abstract color-field painting of the New York School, and in which any "return" to figuration was still widely frowned upon, despite the recent developments of such artists as Rauschenberg and Johns, Lichtenstein's choice of cartoon imagery as a subject matter was, for a long time, considered scandalous. Something of this sense of scandal, shock, but also of cartoon imagery's dynamic impact on the abstract realm, is undoubtedly both contained and expressed in the simple cartoon disruption of the abstract picture plane in I Can see the Whole Room
The imagery of the painting derives from a 1961 William Overgard drawing for a Steve Roper cartoon story (August 6) that depicts Roper's war-time buddy and part-time accomplice in crime-solving, "Mike Nomad" looking through a peephole. Lichtenstein has cropped the image from its original rectangular format to form a square and then completely redesigned the speech balloon so that it extends across almost the entire top edge of the painting. He has also simplified the drawing of Nomad's face significantly, reducing it to bare essentials, while the sharp yellow background is clearly his own invention. Originally intended in a milder tone more reflective of the source image, it is the addition of an acidic supermarket yellow here that ultimately provides the painting with its garish Pop art sense of impact. "Each color had a certain character to me," Lichtenstein pointed out. "The yellow was acid.... I got some of these colours from supermarket packaging. I would look at package labels to see what colours had the most impact on one another" (R. Lichtenstein, "Interview with Diane Waldman," in Roy Lichtenstein, exh. cat., New York, 1971, p. 26).
Lichtenstein's long-time fascination with the science and psychology of perception is clearly reflected in these works as is the paradoxical idea, first established in I Can See the Whole Room and There's Nobody in It!, of engaging the viewer in a game of looking with its subject matter. Part of the deconstructive nature of Lichtenstein's painterly investigation of the cartoon archetype was clearly aimed at what he described as "shaking up" people's confidence in their own vision, and even more importantly perhaps, disrupting his own acquired conventions of seeing and perceiving. Inspired greatly in this by his teacher and mentor at Ohio State University, Hoyt L. Sherman, with whom he studied and later taught in the early 1950s, Lichtenstein's adoption of abstraction, as with his later use of strip-cartoon imagery, was prompted by a desire to continually develop ever-new ways of seeing. Sherman's "ideas on perception were my earliest important influence and still affect my ideas of visual unity," Lichtenstein told Gene Swenson in 1963. (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in G. R. Swenson, "What is Pop Art? Answers for Eight Painters Part 1," Art News 62 no. 7, November 1963, p. 25).
Foremost among these, and with particular relevance to I Can See the Whole Room..., was the "Flash Room" that Sherman built in Ohio as a means of re-training his students' perceptual habits and instilling in them an almost camera-like ability to record their visual impressions in an immediate an instinctive way, uncorrupted by the intervention of cognitive thought or emotional response. As Lichtenstein recalled, Sherman's "Flash Room" was "a darkened room where images would be flashed on a screen for very brief intervals-about a tenth of a second. Something very simple to start, maybe just a few marks. And you would have a pile of paper, and you'd try to draw it. You'd get a very strong afterimage, a total impression, and then you'd draw it in the dark-the point being that you'd have to sense where the parts were in relation to the whole. The images became progressively more complex, and eventually you would go out and try to work the same way elsewhere-would try to bring home the same kind of sensing to your drawing without the mechanical aid of a flash room" (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in Calvin Tomkins, The Art of Roy Lichtenstein: Mural with Blue Brushstroke, New York, 1987, p. 14).
Lichtenstein evidently practiced this technique himself and clearly brought something of the sense of "visual unity"--or "perceptual organization" as he referred to it--that it instilled, into his later paintings of cartoons. The minimalist-looking image of a sudden circular flash of yellow light and a figure peering through an aperture-like hole amidst an otherwise monochrome field of black in I Can See the Whole Room would certainly have reminded Lichtenstein of Sherman's "Flash Room" and the practice of sitting in a darkened void occasionally receiving the visual flash of an image. With its partial eclipse-like circles of intense color and light set at the center of a black void, this object-like picture also presents a mesmerizing and seemingly mechanical image, whose pictorial form both appears to echo and indeed function like that of the inside of a camera, a retina, or a projector. In exuding these mechanical qualities, the painting emphasizes the automated or mechanical nature of seeing and opens up once again the question of the nature of seeing; for here in this work, a mechanically-produced cartoon figure is shown doing all the looking. And, as if to compound this, the playful pictorial fantasy or fiction suggested by the painting's cartoon imagery is extended still further by the caption accompanying it that refers to the fact that the illustrated figure is looking and can see a whole room, but no viewer.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil, "When you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back into you." In I Can See the Whole Room and There's Nobody in It! Lichtenstein seems to be humorously suggesting that a similar condition applies to the nature of looking at art. Like his later paintings of mirrors for example--object-like paintings that seem to reflect both the reality and fiction of the cartoon world--the overt falseness of image-making (or of his own art) is brilliantly summarized in a simple act of mimesis that anticipates the later conceptually-orientated work on the same subject by artists Giulio Paolini or Joseph Kosuth.
Such eloquence and simplicity, so central to the extraordinary and enduring power of this painting, has, in fact, been painstakingly arrived at in this picture through a subtle but involved process of re-arranging, recomposing, redrawing, and reducing the forms of the source image until each is at its most minimal, but still representational-a crystallized "archetype" of itself. Most notable in this respect, as the critic Albert Boime first wrote in 1970, is the speech bubble, which Lichtenstein has carefully restructured and arranged along the top edge of the picture in such a way that its elegant and lilting curves are echoed by the curves and the outlines of the man's face and fingers. It is through such masterly refinement that the painting becomes more clearly and more simply an engineered artifice or construction of elegantly abstracted forms coalescing, seemingly arbitrarily, on the overtly flat surface into a unitary image. In this way, the picture becomes in every detail, from its subject matter and text to its pictorial and painterly content, a work that actively questions the viewer's own belief in what it is they are seeing. Ultimately, it coerces them into a recognition of their own mimetic status in relation to the figure that this painting purports to depict-forcing them to understand that, despite what their eyes might be telling them, they too can see the whole picture and there's nobody in it.