Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)
Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)

Ceramic Sculpture 13

Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)
Ceramic Sculpture 13
signed and dated 'rf Lichtenstein 1965' (on the underside)
glazed ceramic
9 1/2 x 6 1/2 x 7 in. (24.1 x 16.5 x 17.8 cm.)
Executed in 1965.
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Leon Kraushaar, New York
The Estate of Ileana Sonnabend, New York
By descent to the present owner
Roy Lichtenstein: Ceramic Sculpture, exh. cat., Long Beach, California State University, February-March 1977, pp. 16 and 60 (installation view illustrated).
New York, Castelli Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein: Brushstrokes & Ceramics, November-December 1965.

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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

This work will appear in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.

The punchy red and black graphics of Roy Lichtenstein’s 1965 Ceramic Sculpture #13 aren’t only aesthetically striking; they also lay the conceptual groundwork for a razor-sharp visual pun. Famously fascinated with the iconography of Americana, Pop Art titan Lichtenstein based much of his oeuvre on the style and subject matter of pulp comics and mainstream advertising imagery. In the present work, the artist appropriates the diner cup of coffee as depicted in mass-produced newsprint ads—an artificial representation, honed through the iterations of commercial artists and the reproductive machinery of mass media— and reifies it in a three-dimensional sculpture. A mock trompe-l’oeil sporting the characteristic dilated Ben-Day dots for which the artist is known, the piece playfully pretends at a simulation of shadows and tonalities as it pretends at functionality. Yet, as an explicitly nonfunctional, decorative art object and a visually artificial representation of a stack of coffee cups, Ceramic Sculpture #13 underscores the extent to which the popular idioms and conventional images of Americana—assumed by many to be realist representations of their subjects— are thoroughly pictorially and culturally coded.

The so-called coffee cups of Ceramic Sculpture #13, intellectualized and formally stylized by the artist to the point of near-abstraction, are droll and compelling caricatures of printed symbols. “I don’t care what, say, a cup of coffee looks like,” Lichtenstein explained, lamenting that some less astute viewers might miss the (admittedly nuanced) point. “I only care about how it’s drawn” (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in J. Cowart (ed.), Roy Lichtenstein: Beginning to End, exh. cat., Madrid, 2007, pp. 118-19). In his Ceramic Sculpture series, the artist investigates the commercial pictorial conventions of the coffee cup: what he perspicaciously referred to as “the crystallized symbol.” High-gloss and gorgeously handcrafted, the confident ceramic sculpture at hand takes the two-dimensional icon of the coffee mug and brings it to life, zigzagging across media as it brilliantly transforms drawing into sculpture. A solid, predictable object—a coffee cup—collapses into fragments of transparent representational tactics in a nod to the work of art historical forebears like Pablo Picasso. In Lichtenstein’s mannered translation, volume is visually reduced, dissolving into heavy black lines and Ben-Day dots; color becomes emboldened, starkly primary and modulated only by crisp white highlights. Thus the tiny towers of American diner culture and the familiar cultural repertoire they conjure up are made strikingly strange.

The conventional image of the coffee cup and the diner culture associated with that classic ‘Cup of Joe’ were at the heart of the postindustrial American culture that so fascinated and inspired Lichtenstein. During the American consumerism boom of the ‘50s and ‘60s, diners spread rapidly throughout the nation, numbering at around 6,000 at their peak. The ubiquitous mid-century diner—factory-built and then transported to its final location—and the steaming mugs of coffee served there were coded as a shared American experience; they quickly accumulated an equally ubiquitous and instantly recognizable iconography, which proliferated in visual materials ranging from menus to print and televised advertisements. Lichtenstein took note of what was iconic in that popular consumer culture and elevated it to a bold art.

One of Pop Art’s superstars along with Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein was a painter, a lithographer, and a sculptor. He made his first foray into sculpture in the ‘40s and ‘50s, producing carved works made from furniture parts as well as various assemblages of wood, stone, and terracotta. His sculptural style matured in the mid-‘60s as he turned toward glazed ceramics, producing increasingly figurative pieces that integrated his iconic pop imagery. These tongue-in-cheek glazed sculptures included busts of female mannequins and, of course, the molded stacks of ceramic coffee cups and saucers that comprised his 1965 Ceramic Sculptures series. The sculptures from this period of artistic production are decorated with Benday dots—hand-painted in imitation of Benday screens— for a flat look in spite of the works’ literal three-dimensionality. In the’70s and ‘80s, Lichtenstein’s sculpture grew to a larger scale, as he was commissioned for a series of major public sculptures including the 1979 Mermaid in Miami Beach and the 1986 Mural with Blue Brushstrokes in New York City.

Roy Lichtenstein’s Ceramic Sculpture #13 is a representation of a coffee cup that is neither functioning like nor particularly looking like a real coffee cup. As Lichtenstein explained of the popular iconography he appropriated, “It becomes a very exaggerated, a very compelling symbol that has almost nothing to do with the original” (R. Lichtenstein, quoted by I. Dervaux (ed.), Roy Lichtenstein: The Black and White Drawings, exh. cat., Morgan Library & Museum, New York, 2010, p. 164). In a Pop echo of René Magritte, Ceramic Sculpture #13 cannily declares: Ceci n’est pas un mug.

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