This work will appear in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
Painted in 1965, Roy Lichtenstein’s Red and White Brushstrokes is a quintessential Pop painting, but one which shrewdly questions fundamental beliefs about the traditional artistic process. With its bold rendition of two brushstrokes loaded with red and white paint, Lichtenstein calls into question the revered status of the painterly mark. Across this monumentally-scaled canvas, he takes the essence of painting—the sanctity of the brushstroke—and frames it within the Pop idiom. In an apparent jibe at the spontaneous and layered brushwork of Abstract Expressionism, the gesture reappears as controlled strokes, replete with drips, set against a field of regularized dots. One of only a handful of works from this pivotal series to remain in private hands, Red and White Brushstrokes demonstrates that Lichtenstein was not content to pay homage to his artistic antecedents, as here we begin to see the development of the artist’s insightful deconstruction of the visual language of mass communication and the consolidation of his signature style which did much to establish Pop Art as one of the dominant movements of the post-war period.
Set against a backdrop of the artist’s signature Ben-Day dots, Lichtenstein renders two broad strokes of red and white paint. The primary sweep of pigment is executed in brilliant white, positioned across the central portion of the canvas on a slightly inclined angle as Lichtenstein adroitly mimics the motion of moving the paint laden brush from left to right across the surface of the canvas. The presence of a heavily laden brush is suggested by the rippled contour of the brushstroke in conjunction with the appearance of a trail of excess paint that trickles off down to the left plus the drips and splashes of surplus pigment that adorn the lower portion of the canvas. On top of this initial brushstroke, the artist lays down a second, more dramatic, sweep of paint—this time executed in a vivid red. Here, he traces a more controlled, serpentine path as the heavily loaded brush snakes its way across the surface of the painting before culminating in a series of feathered marks as the filaments give up their last vestiges of pigment.
Lichtenstein took the original source of inspiration for this series from a mass-produced comic book. The Painting, drawn by Dick Giordano and published by Charlton Comics in the October 1964 edition of Strange Suspense Stories, tells the story of a tortured artist and a painting that appears to take on a life of its own. The story’s prologue gives a haunting sense of what is to come…
“The act of creating a work of art is an all-consuming task! The true artist must throw himself into this work with complete dedication if the work is to have any real meaning or value. So it was that Jake Taylor pursued his goals as a painter. However, like all other men, an artist must have food and a roof over his head. So Jake spent a good deal of his time painting portraits of people who paid him for this service. But this only served to fill Jake with self-pity and self-hate, for it represented a compromise of his goals. Jake wanted to be a great artist, but he felt that he was on the road toward becoming a clever copyist instead. And this drove him to strange thoughts and impossible flights of imagination…or was it mere imagination?”
The direct source is a panel towards the end of the story. It shows a closely cropped view of the artist’s hand carrying a paintbrush loaded with red paint. He is standing before a painting which he has just defaced by applying large swathes of pigment, with the caption reading “The painting was destroyed…The voice was silenced. I must be having some kind of nightmare.” As in much of his work, Lichtenstein doesn’t merely copy the image directly from the comic book source, instead he identifies the most prescient elements and manipulates them to his own requirements. In the case of Red and White Brushstrokes he eliminates all the superfluous narrative material, leaving only the brushstrokes themselves. He incorporates the painterly splashes and drips of the original image but emphasizes the liquescent nature of the paint by the addition of thick, black lines that define the textures of the brushstroke itself.
Red and White Brushstrokes belongs to one of the most significant series of paintings from Roy Lichtenstein’s long and prolific career. The group of 14 works were produced during a span of only a few months and many are now regarded as pivotal works from the Pop Art movement and housed in major international museum collections. These include Brushstrokes (on long-term loan to the Moderna Museet, Stockholm), Big Painting, (Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf), Little Big Painting (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), Yellow Brushstroke I (Kunsthaus, Zürich), and Brushstroke with Splatter (Art Institute of Chicago). The brushstroke would become a theme which Lichtenstein would reference throughout his career. Although the initial series of paintings were restricted to 1965-1966, he worked with the motif—making other drawings and prints—until 1971 and would later return to the motif in more elaborate forms (including sculpture) in the 1980s and 1990s.
Initially, Lichtenstein’s Brushstroke series was thought to be a sly comment on the artistic dominance of Abstract Expressionism, in particular the authoritarian gestures of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. During the movement’s heyday these autographical marks were often regarded as the ultimate demonstration of the artist’s prowess—fueled in part by influential magazines like Artforum and their copious use of close-up detail shots of these particular gestures. With Red and White Brushstrokes Lichtenstein began to challenge this hegemony, and by interpreting these spontaneous marks in a commercial, mass-produced style, he questioned the authority of these purportedly inimitable gestures. “[I]t’s taking something that originally was supposed to mean immediacy and I’m tediously drawing something that looks like a brushstroke... I want it to look as though it were painstaking. It’s a picture of a picture and it’s a misconstrued picture of a picture” Lichtenstein explained (R. Lichtenstein, quoted by J. Rondeau & S. Wagstaff, Roy Lichtenstein, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, New Haven & London, 2012, p. 50). By creating distance between the physical gesture and its interpretation, Lichtenstein breaks the perennial myth surrounding the notion of the artist’s hand and thus opens the traditions of art-making practice to a whole new range of possibilities.
As one of the founders of the nascent Pop Art movement, Lichtenstein’s introspective examination of Abstract Expressionism might have been seen as an attack on the practices of what was ultimately America’s first true, great art movement. Yet, Lichtenstein was at pains to point out that this was not necessarily true. “The things that I have apparently parodied I actually admire…” he once told an interviewer in 1965 (R. Lichtenstein, quoted by S. Doris, “Missing Modernism,” in J. Rondeau & S. Wagstaff, ibid.). Indeed, in his seminal book on the iconography of Lichtenstein’s paintings, Michael Lobel, points out that ironically, the more Lichtenstein departed from the modus operandi of Abstract Expressionism, the closer he actually got “With the Brushstroke series the artist began to move away from direct appropriation of comics, advertising and other printed sources, and—as with the landscapes and mirror works of the late 1960s and early 1980s—he began to more fully exploit the abstract qualities of his pictorial idiom” (M. Lobel, Image Duplicator: Roy Lichtenstein and the Emergence of Pop Art, New Haven, 2002, p. 161). Lichtenstein was an enthusiastic student of art history and his Brushstroke paintings were some of the first canvases in which he would delve into the art historical canon as source material for his work. After Abstract Expressionism, he would look to German Expressionism, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism together with Surrealism and even Chinese landscape painting as a way of helping him to develop his own artistic language.
But it wasn’t only the artists of the 20th century artistic canon which inspired Lichtenstein, he was also greatly influenced by the Dutch painter Frans Hals. The celebrated Golden Age artist was particularly admired for his brushy, painterly style, a method of painting descended from hallowed examples of European art and which served as an inspiration to Abstract Expressionism. Many years after the Brushstroke series was completed, Lichtenstein acknowledged that it was perhaps Hals’ work, rather than that of the Abstract Expressionists, that served as the greater influence on his paintings from this series. “While Hals painting technique was no more excessive than his gesticulating figures,” says Lichtenstein scholar Diane Waldman, “it was his brushwork that interested Lichtenstein. Hals takes his place beside many other painters, both past and present, for whom the spontaneous gesture appears to be and end in and of itself” (D. Waldman, Roy Lichtenstein, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York, 1993, p. 151).
Although not expressly referenced, there is also a Duchampian element to Lichtenstein’s work too. Both were fascinated by the pop culture of the 20th century, with Lichtenstein drawn to the banality of consumerism in addition to art history, appropriating the techniques of mass communication to depict the objects he observed. Duchamp also takes ubiquitous objects, particularly the iconic Mona Lisa, turning her world famous likeness into his sly and equally subversive L.H.O.O.Q. Thus “…Lichtenstein has seized upon the salient aspects of the rich tradition of painting and laid claim to the history of art using the brushstroke as both the subject and the content of this body of work. In isolating and identifying the brushstroke as a subject, Lichtenstein created the painterly equivalent of the found object” (D. Waldman, Roy Lichtenstein, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York, 1993, p. 156).
The distinctive subject of Red and White Brushstrokes puts it at the very heart of Roy Lichtenstein’s legacy. Its iconic style was double edged, apparently naive but actually highly sophisticated. By taking something so fundamental as a the mark made by the stroke of a brush and rendering it in the style of a mass produced comic, Lichtenstein sought to question a thousand years or more of art history. His choice of images as well as his simplified reductive style, served to highlight his actual intentions in a way that made the paintings both accessible to the general public and irritating to traditional academic art scholars who viewed him as a philistine. Yet, with works such as this, Lichtenstein emerged as one of the most intelligent and innovative artists of the Pop Art movement.