The lot will be included in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
Seductive Girl is a majestic and monumental Pop tribute to art history's most enduring subject: the female nude. Executed in 1996, it represents Roy Lichtenstein's triumphal return to the comic heroines of the 1960s, which had defined him as one of the major painters of the twentieth century. This beguiling playmate, rendered in the Lichtenstein's bold signature style, belongs to a series of larger-than-life Nudes that were 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).
Seductive Girl does not need its title to give meaning to the naked woman it depicts. She instantly enters the domain of narrative through her implied sexuality. Her sultry pose communicates a blatant and uncomplicated erotic availability made familiar to us from countless images from the mass media as much as the canon of art history. The sidelong glance of her bedroom eyes directly engages the viewer, inviting our own gaze and through it, participation in her world. Her nipple is also a focal point, which recalls other visual rhymes of the dot in Lichtenstein's work, such as the dimples on a golf ball, the pores in a sponge or the contents of a cherry pie. The foregrounded nipple cannot be ignored, arguably it is the first thing one notices, and the eye is continually brought back to it through a tightly framed composition of curvilinear forms. The sweeping line of her breast carries our line of sight upwards through her raised arm, along to her face, and is then brought tumbling back down through her luxuriously wavy hair. This spiraling movement creates an optic-erotic vibration that lends the painting a powerful iconicity, its visual impact ensuring its place amongst Lichtenstein's greatest comic portraits.
Images of women culled from the pages of comics and magazines appeared in Lichtenstein's work as early as 1961, when Girl with a Ball (Museum of Modern Art, New York) was painted. A succession of females followed, whether engaged in the household chores of cleaning and cooking, such as Washing Machine, 1961 (Yale University Art Gallery, Connecticut), or the more widely known fantasy dramas of pensive, love-struck women like Hopeless, 1963 (Kunstmuseum, Basel). These subjects drew on the already slightly dated images of womankind that had become ingrained as a social stereotype during the post-war era. As Diane Waldman has written, these women were "not heroines but supplicants to the male ego, and Lichtenstein did not invent them; they or their counterparts can be found in the ads or romance comic books of the time" (D. Waldman, Roy Lichtenstein, exh. cat., New York, 1993, p.113). By re-presenting these visual and cultural clichs to the world through the medium of "high art," Lichtenstein asked his audience to question their origins and role in society anew.
Social attitudes changed in the decades following Lichtenstein's first paintings of "All-American" comic book girls, and he responded to that shift in the late Nudes. These are not the vulnerable girls that Lichtenstein painted in the 1960s; his nude figures from the 1990s have benefitted from the advances that the earlier girls were struggling to come to terms with. Unlike the first Girl paintings (whose subjects looked to 'Brad' or 'Jeff' to make their lives complete) the figure in Seductive Girl is an independent woman happy to acknowledge her body and the power it has over men. "The 1990s nudes take pleasure in their own company," writer 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" (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). An early counterpart to Seductive Girl's self-possessed sexuality can be found in the glamorous brunette in Aloha (The Helman Collection) and its close-cropped sister Little Aloha (Private collection), both from 1962. Yet these paintings seem to depict another deeply engrained female archetype: that of the femme fatale. The languidly sensual Seductive Girl on the other hand is a much less threatening presence. This is a woman of a new generation, confident and assured, and with a visual intensity brought alive by her undeniable eroticism.
The structure, simplicity and close-up framing of this painting are closely aligned with the format of Lichtenstein's early Girl paintings of the 1960s. When it came to planning the composition, the artist approached his work in much the same way that he had constructed his paintings thirty-five years before. He raided his archives of clippings from comics and magazines to find compelling images that suited his purpose before translating them on a vast scale. This reclining beauty is translated from a 1964 Heart Throbs comic book, which charts the trials and tribulations of teen romance. The original image comes from the cover story "Love Me Not for Beauty Only" in which a fashionable blonde is desperately frustrated by unrequited love. Lichtenstein chose a frame of the girl alone in bed, headed by the expository statement: "Later that night, I couldn't fall asleep." The cause of the winsome protagonist's sleeplessness is outlined in the thought bubble that hovers above her: "His thoughts are with that other girl...Oh Danny...Please love me! Don't let her take you from me..." In Lichtenstein's enlarged interpretation the text is cropped out and the lovelorn subject is stripped of her frilly nightgown, bringing forward the latent messages that lie at the heart of the image. By making these changes, Lichtenstein exploits our understanding of the visual language of the comic, turning it from a relatively benign scene of female objectification into a tableau that crackles with sexual frisson. About his late nudes from 1994-97, the artist noted, "It's kind of amusing that you just paint them and leave the clothes off and it means something different. It's more riveting" (R. Lichtenstein quoted on R. Enright, "Pop Goes the Tradition," Border Crossings, vol.13 no.3, August 1994, p.27).
A number of other less obvious alterations have been made to Seductive Girl to strengthen the image, including a slight rearrangement of limbs to enhance the figure's more curved bustline; the lock of hair flowing over her arm which leads us to her face; the removal of extraneous details from her features; and the fluid rendering of the pillow creases, not to mention the dots and stripes that fill in the picture plane. These marks are a continuation of the classic graphic lexicon that Lichtenstein began exploring in the 1960s. In common with his early paintings, Seductive Girl examines the language of visual communication--how signs and symbols act as visual shorthand for comprehending what we see. Lichtenstein emulates the comic artist's reduction of the rich, infinitesimally nuanced amounts of visual detail that we absorb in our daily lives to a beautifully simple series of lines, dots and unmodulated color. With these simple devices, he is able to construct a narrative that is as striking as it is subtle.
The changes that occurred between the source material and the final painting were carefully mapped out in works on paper, where the graphic logic of Lichtenstein's composition and his adaptation of marks as pattern are revealed. In planning Seductive Girl, one preliminary drawing shows the figure bifurcated by shaded scribbles of blue pencil lines, with further dark zones encircled on her chest and pillow. A second drawing shows the figure and background filled in by evenly spaced blue and black diagonal lines. In the early 1990s, Lichtenstein had also begun to rely on collages between the drawing and painting stages in order to further refine the image. A highly finished collage for Seductive Girl amalgamates the schema plotted out in the two drawings described above. Black diagonal lines remain in the background while the shaded blue pencil marks have been converted into graduated Ben-Day dots across the figure and her support, the most intensely colored areas being filled with the largest dots. Photographer's tape was used to define the outline of the figure over these patterns as it provided a definitive black line that was easily manipulated. This is would be the final blueprint for the enlarged canvas.
Throughout his career, Lichtenstein was principally concerned with formal techniques and the problems of art and image making. The introduction of graduated Ben-Day dots in the late nude paintings was formally groundbreaking as they drew attention to the artistic illusion of shadow, light and depth in painting in a way hitherto unexplored in Lichtenstein's art. Seductive Girl's position is made ambiguous by the deliberately unconvincing areas of illumination and shadow caused by the conglomeration of large dots tapering into pinpoints, and the fact they spill outside the boundaries of her body onto the pillow behind. They are employed to create a spatial conundrum between color planes and contour lines that simultaneously evoke and flatten depth of field. This system deflects our attention from the principle motif in a way that recalls Henri Matisse's use of patterning and unconfined fields of vivid color to unite figure and ground.
The painting's subject matter is there to lure the viewer into a visual narrative, yet she is a trap, an ambush designed to make us look at art with renewed scrutiny. Like all Lichtenstein's paintings, the nudes ultimately are about issues of perception. His principle concern in Seductive Girl, and the Nudes in general, was the idea behind the technique of chiaroscuro, where dark shaded tones are typically used to overlap the figure and background to create a sense of volume. His idea wasn't to simulate shadows precisely, but to symbolize the convention of chiaroscuro. The dots loosen their form-giving function to become isolated signs, marks of interest in themselves. In the original comic, the color blue was used to indicate the scene was taking place at night. Lichtenstein's re-use of the blue across both figure and bedclothes, excluding the girl's hair, further problematizes the realism of image. These devices remind the viewer that what we are looking at is only a painting made up of only marks upon a plane. In the 1997 interview between David Sylvester and Lichtenstein, the last ever given by the artist, he described this recent process of abstraction and slippage in the following way: "I've been using gradated dots or colors that go from one form to another, but the idea is that the lines could act like that to make areas or localities of the things that are independent. Of course, they don't look like anything in nature, so there's no subject matter excuse--though we don't really have to have excuses, I think, after Mondrian or Picasso or Cézanne.... If you did it without the subject matter you wouldn't know this was being done, so the subject matter helps because there's a reference to reality. Some kind of reality anyway" (R. Lichtenstein quoted in D. Sylvester Some Kind of Reality: Roy Lichtenstein interviewed by David Sylvester in 1966 and 1997, exh. cat., Anthony d'Offay, London, 1997, p.38)
As this above quote indicates, the subject matter of Seductive Girl is designed to hold the pictorial framework in tension. Lichtenstein also indicates that his preoccupation with such formal concerns stem from his familiarity with the great masters of modern art whose work highlighted the fundamental flatness of the picture plane. Picasso and Matisse were Lichtenstein's most venerated artistic predecessors. He owned a prodigious sixty-one books dedicated to the art of Picasso, and twenty-four books on Matisse, and he applied his comic style to ersatz versions of their work on many occasions throughout his career. His late nude paintings have also been compared to the work of both painters. Sheena Wagstaff, in her chapter on Lichtenstein's Nudes in the catalogue for the artist's recent retrospective, argues that his 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; one based on Picasso's celebrated portraits of his young mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter from the 1920s and the painter's obsession with the theme of 'the artist and his model' in his later years. The profound fascination that Picasso held for paintings of women is directly comparable to Matisse's synchronous elevation of the woman as muse. Sensual, languorous nudes preoccupied Matisse for much of his life and he progressively flattened and abstracted the figure of his model and her environment in an attempt to universalize his subject matter.
These artists remained a touchstone for Lichtenstein as their work kept him focused on the aesthetic quandaries of twentieth century art, namely the conventions of painting; the distinctions between art and nature; the role of subject in art; and the functions of line, color and spatial depth. Picasso and Matisse's interest in the female nude was also a source of fascination for Lichtenstein. For both artists, the female nude was a symbol of desire whose appeal, from antiquity to the present day, lay in its potential for formal perfection. Female nudes are a timeless vehicle for exploring plastic possibilities and a classic allegory of the artist's creative potency. For this reason, they have been markers of formal and intellectual changes in art throughout the ages, including idealized Greek statuary; Titian's unapologetically erotic Venus of Urbino1538 (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence); Ingres elongated La Grande Odalisque, 1814 (Louvre, Paris); douard Manet's daring Olympia, 1863 (Muse d'Orsay, Paris); Picasso's revolutionary Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907 (Museum of Modern Art, New York); Matisse's streamlined Large Reclining Nude (The Pink Nude), 1935 (The Baltimore Museum of Art); Willem de Kooning's abstract expressionist Woman I, 1950 (Museum of Modern Art, New York); and even the 'live paintbrush' performances of Yves Klein's blue-painted models, among countless others.
Lichtenstein has seized on this theme to jockey himself into a pantheon of artists who dealt with the mainstay of art history. He had always overtly stated his intention that he was making art about art, and in the case of the Nudes his subject matter aligned, and arguably overrode, his formal theories: "I thought that the nudes would disappear because the idea I had in my head was so strong. It wasn't that way at all. If you draw three lines that look like a nude, people see a nude" he observed (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in R. Enright, op. cit., p. 27). With Seductive Girl, Lichtenstein contributes to this legacy in his inimitable and ironic fashion. The subject of the nude enabled him to make a knowing and witty nod to art historical precedents, including that of his own world-famous oeuvre. The result is a triple loop of appropriation that exemplified new approaches to visual practice in the post-modern era.