Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)

Figures in Landscape

Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)
Figures in Landscape
signed and dated 'rf Lichtenstein '77' (on the reverse)
oil, magna and graphite on canvas
69¾ x 80 in. (177.2 x 203.2 cm.)
Painted in 1977.
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Xavier Fourcade, Inc., New York
Mr. and Mrs. Richard C. Hedreen, Seattle
Private collection, Greenwich
Van de Weghe Fine Art, New York
The Pace Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Venice, Ace Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein: Surrealist Paintings, January-February 1978.
New York, Xavier Fourcade, Inc., Large Scale/Small Scale Sculpture, April-June 1978.

Lot Essay

This work will be included in the catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.

"All my art is in some way about other art, even if the other art is cartoons," Roy Lichtenstein declared, and nothing more perfectly embodies this statement than his Surrealism series, created in the late 1970s (Lichtenstein, quoted in J. Hendrickson, Roy Lichtenstein, Cologne, 2000, frontispiece). Figures in Landscape dates from 1977, the beginning of this brief and acclaimed "Surreal" period. In this work, Lichtenstein has collided elements from the canon of Surrealism with references to his own previous pictures. In the foreground, the sinuous, looping forms of the female "figure" recall Picasso's pictures from his own Surrealist phase, for instance the figures on the beach at Dinard, as well as his later Femme-fleur; likewise, she recalls the floating face formed from a string of pearls and other objects from Magritte's Shéhérezade. Meanwhile, the rigorous geometry and angularity of the male "figure" on the right recall Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Kurt Schwitters. Other areas of the picture seem to channel Giorgio de Chirico and, in the "liquid" silhouette in the upper left, Salvador Dalí. Yet the picture is littered with a medley of Lichtenstein's own images, washed up like Pop flotsam on the shores of his imagination: images as diverse as the Swiss Cheese from 1962, the Pyramids from 1968, the Entablatures which he began in 1971 and the Abstractions from the mid-1970s all make an appearance. It is for this reason that Jack Cowart related Lichtenstein's large-scale "Surrealist" pictures to his earlier inventory-like Artist's Studio paintings.

Lichtenstein painted Figures in Landscape at a time when he was attacking various aspects of the so-called "canon" of art, or rather, of what people liked to think of as "High Art." Lichtenstein, and Pop Art in general, was opposed to such inane categorizations. His pictures from the 1960s attacked such constructs by presenting comic strips and ads rendered on canvas in such a manner that these traditional painterly components were now hardly recognizable, instead mimicking artificial, mass-produced imagery from the media-saturated world around him. First in his Brushstrokes and then in series such as the Modern paintings and the Abstractions, Lichtenstein cocked a thumb at his various esteemed predecessors. However, by bringing them down to earth he made them seem more accessible.

In particular, Lichtenstein had been systematically undermining the entire cult of the artists' touch, of the brushstroke which underpinned so much modern art, from Picasso to Pollock. His crisp, stencilled-looking pictures formed a stark contrast with the deliberately painterly and thus revered creations of his predecessors. The entire notion of mark-making was flagrantly and joyously undermined in Lichtenstein's works by ersatz, pseudo-gestural elements, depictions of chance effects and vigorous brushstrokes that were in reality highly controlled. Surrealism, with its reliance on accident and association, therefore formed a natural target for him within this context: those concepts of the Subconscious, of automatic thinking, of letting the painting create itself, have all been exorcised in Figures in a Landscape with the absolute inscrutability of its brushwork and the complete absence of overlapping areas of paint. This picture is the result of a very carefully-contained spontaneity.

As Jack Cowart pointed out in Roy Lichtenstein: 1970-1980 (London, 1982), the artist's own earlier works had already been dubbed "surreal" by some critics because of the strange transformation that his subject-matter underwent, making the movement a perfect target for him. However, Lichtenstein would have been all the more attracted to the genre because of its prominent place in the recent history of art in the United States of America. It was through the influence of the exiled Surrealists who fled Europe during the Second World War to settle in the States, Marcel Duchamp and the Armenian-born Arshile Gorky, that Abstract Expressionism really came into existence. These artists brought with them an awareness of and interest in avant-garde developments that had hardly been conceived of at the time. American painters exposed to this, following Gorky's example in particular, began to liberate themselves and abandon the figurative. Lichtenstein's Figures in Landscape appears to present a similar vision to Gorky's late, intangible paintings, yet here it has clearly been filtered through the Pop Artist's own unique idiom. Here, the fragmented, illusory past appears in the form of elements such as absurdly-proportioned cheese, a pyramid and architectural details.

Lichtenstein himself, when he was a budding artist, had dabbled - as so many students did during the 1950s - with Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, some of the earliest works of which he was proud and excited, and which slowly began to reveal the path that he would come to tread, had been pictures of cartoon characters rendered with an Action Painting style and vigor. It was that clash - or rather gaping divide - between popular culture and "high-falutin'" concepts of what "art" is that he explored throughout his oeuvre, and especially in his "Surrealist" images such as Figures in Landscape. Here, he has managed to jumble up the various components from his own and other artists' works in seemingly random associative order - though the development of that order is evident from Lichtenstein's own preparatory drawings - and has revelled in the synthetic appearance that, through his own unique "touch," they acquire.

This is a process of demystification. Lichtenstein is carrying out a two-pronged attack: on the one hand, he is deliberately degrading the currency of so-called High Art; and crucially, on the other, he is bringing it to a wider audience in his own idiosyncratic manner. He explained, "it's a kind of 'plain-pipe racks Picasso' I want to do - one that looks misunderstood and yet has its own validity" (Lichtenstein, quoted in Hendrickson, ibid., 2000, p. 59). Figures in Landscape is essentially a "plain-pipe racks" Surrealism, looking misunderstood yet with its own validity, both within the canon of Lichtenstein's own Pop pictures and of the history of Western art. Lichtenstein has revealed the working parts, has presented them in an accessible way in line with what he referred elsewhere to as "like a five-and-dime-store Picasso" (Lichtenstein, quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2002, p. 230). But crucially, he has done this in a manner that is beyond iconoclasm: he has granted the movements of yore a new validity. As he once explained, "my art is perversely different from my thinking about art" (Lichtenstein, quoted in M. Kimmelman, PORTAITS, Talking with Artists at the Met, The Modern, The Louvre and Elsewhere, reproduced at

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