Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)


Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)
signed and dated 'rf Lichtenstein '77' (on the reverse)
oil and magna on canvas
80 1/8 x 66 1/8 in. (203.5 x 168 cm.)
Painted in 1977.
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Ernst Beyeler, Basel
James Goodman Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner on 5 January 1981
Roy Lichtenstein: Conversations with Surrealism, exh. cat., Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York, 2005, n.p. (illustrated as a detail).

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Lot Essay

Executed in 1977, this work will be included in the catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.

Roy Lichtenstein's Frolic, painted in 1977, is a playful rampage through the history of art, as its title suggests. With its verve and energy, it was only natural that Betty Freeman would seek permission from the artist to use this painting as a series of CD covers, each showing a fragment that would build up to create the entire picture. Her support of art and music would intersect at various points throughout her life, particularly when artists she admired moved her so deeply.

In this painting, Lichtenstein has taken various influences - his own earlier works, Pablo Picasso, Surrealism and the science of sight - and has smashed them all together, dragging them through the filter of his own idiosyncratic style, in order to create a picture that is at once bright, witty and thought-provoking. This work is the artful and meticulous aftermath of a collision between High and Low. Here, we see Picasso through the filter of Pop; his celebrated 1932 painting Baigneuse au ballon de plage (in New York's Museum of Modern Art) is granted an unusual and irreverent reincarnation.

Lichtenstein himself once said, "I'm trying to make a commercialized Picasso" (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in L. Alloway, Lichtenstein, New York, 1999, p. 47). He was tapping into the legacy of the recently-deceased master, whose work was so recognizable that it essentially was already Pop: "one has the feeling there should be a reproduction of Picasso in every home" (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in J. Hendrickson, Roy Lichtenstein, Cologne, 2000, p. 59). Picasso was a natural target for the artist famous for pillaging imagery from comics, from adverts and from gallery walls with equal abandon.

Frolic is a wonderful cross-germination, owing as much to Lichtenstein's own 1962 picture Girl with Ball and to cartoons as it does to Picasso. The anchor in the background recalls Popeye as much as the beach, while the second figure recalls Jean Arp's biomorphic abstractions. However, the overriding element of this painting is Lichtenstein's own idiosyncratic style of mock-print painting. In this sense, he has turned the strange and distorting spotlight of his own unique aesthetic towards the work of the late great Picasso. It is telling that he has done so by adding a sprinkling of varied ingredients both from his own backlog of imagery and from the wider oceans of popular culture in which he revelled.

In the 1970s, Lichtenstein began to subject a wider range of "classic" images to transmogrification, as is clear in Frolic. He no longer limited himself to cartoon strips and ads, but instead turned his focus to such diverse elements as art and architecture, deliberately reducing them to the level of cliché. In Frolic, the flesh has been rendered through an arrangement of regularly-spaced Ben-Day dots (arguably more flesh-like than the grey of Picasso's original) while most of the color fields have been applied in a uniform manner, yet this has been painted by hand. Lichtenstein has deliberately and painstakingly used a traditional medium to mimic the appearance of print. He has deconstructed entire notions of seeing, representation, spontaneity, originality - in short, of art. He is playing conceptual somersaults, manipulating the viewer's reactions, disassembling the way we see and the way that artists communicate. Lichtenstein's Frolic denigrates Picasso yet brings him to the masses, resulting in a work that is at once celebratory and iconoclastic.

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