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

Head with Braid and Feathers

Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)
Head with Braid and Feathers
signed and dated '© rf Lichtenstein '79' (on the reverse)
oil and Magna on canvas
70 x 50 in. (177.8 x 127 cm.)
Painted in 1979.
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Portland Center for the Visual Arts, Roy Lichtenstein: Recent Paintings and Sculptures, March-April 1980.
Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Fernand Léger Paris - New York, June-September 2008, p. 180, no. 124 (illustrated in color).

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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.

Head with Braid and Feathers is a remarkably rich work from one of Lichtenstein’s most inventive decades; a boldly-colored, striking painting in which Surrealist elements intermingle with the bold colors and symbolism of Native American design. Created in 1979, the painting dates to the intersection of Lichtenstein’s Surrealist explorations of 1973-1979 and his brief American Indian series of 1979-1981, a small series of which only about a dozen paintings exist. The work depicts a recurring character from this point in the artist’s oeuvre: a male figure rendered in profile, with deep-cut angular features, an empty oval for an eye and a rectangular opening for a mouth, bedecked in feathers and a braid. Set against a deeply-receding background and ornately-decorated with an intricate faux-bois design, this wood-plank figure strikes a formidable pose, challenging the viewer to decipher its enigmatic presence. The feathers, braid and simple palette of red, yellow and brown are reminiscent of Native American design, yet the mysterious quality of the piece, its deeply-receding red background and haunting, skull-like form are decidedly Surrealist. In Head with Braid and Feathers, Lichtenstein knowingly weaves a complex visual tapestry in which disparate signs and symbols are interwoven across time and place.

In what critics have termed a “complexity of reference,” Lichtenstein’s work from this era evokes a myriad of sources, both art historical and self-referential. In the 1970s, the artist left virtually no stone unturned as he produced series after series, all of them based on the great “isms” of Modern art. As the decade drew to a close, these wildly-inventive paintings reached a kind of fever pitch, as the layers of imagery piled up in a display of virtuosity. In Head with Braid and Feathers, an unfolding array of different references are revealed, rendered in the artist’s own sophisticated pictorial language, each creating new relationships that result from their juxtaposition. In this way, Lichtenstein creates what Jack Cowart describes as a kind of “Surrealistic slang,” a sort of visual shorthand that exaggerates and stylizes Surrealism while passing it through the filter of his own unique lens: “Gone is the European old-master patina of historical Surrealism. What are presented instead are high-color, pared-down, bilateral, or compositionally distinct puzzles” (J. Cowart, Roy Lichtenstein: 1970-1980, exh. cat., St. Louis Art Museum, 1981, p. 115).

Lichtenstein’s imagery for Head with Braid and Feathers is not limited to one precise source but several, making the art historical game of decoding its imagery a delicious challenge. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect is the artist’s use of faux-bois, a synthetic wood-grain pattern with a rich and storied history. In the early cubist collage of Picasso and Braque, pieces of commercially-printed, decorative faux-bois wallpaper were often included as a vivid reminder of the fundamentally two-dimensional nature of art. By juxtaposing pieces of faux-bois paper side-by-side painted representations of real things, the cubists pointed to the status of representational art as a false construction (the patterned faux-bois paper itself a simulated creation of real wood). In the 19th Century, American trompe l’oeil painters like John F. Peto and William Harnett often depicted realistically-rendered wood panel backgrounds; and their own paintings harkened back to 17th Century Flemish still life and its use of wood paneling. Lichtenstein used faux-bois repeatedly in the 1970’s, for example in Trompe L’oeil with Léger Head and Paintbrush (1973) and Cubist Still Life (1974). In Head with Braid and Feathers, Lichtenstein revels in the abstract patterning of the faux-bois design, its naturalistic wood-grain appearance translated into flat, comic-book style pastiche.

The Surrealists often incorporated faux-bois in their work as well, mostly relying upon the strange, subliminal connotations of the wood’s surface, which might be rough and splintery on the one hand, or polished to a smooth patina on the other. Surrealist sculptors like Méret Oppenheim and Alberto Giacometti, especially his early wood sculptures, relished the strange sensation of encountering unexpected surface textures like wood and fur. The uncanny result of combining ordinary objects in unusual or unexpected connotations was the hallmark of Surrealism, perhaps no better exemplified that in the work of Rene Magritte, whose 1926 painting The Conqueror seems a likely source for Head with Braid and Feathers. During the 1940’s, Surrealism was the dominant influence as many European artists emigrated to the United States in the wake of the second world war, and it played a major defining role in Lichtenstein’s early work of the 1950’s.

In Head with Braid and Feathers, Lichtenstein’s wood-panel figure is adorned with two feathers that are placed near the top of the figure’s head. A stylized braid, rendered in the artist’s signature yellow—a playful riff on blonde hair—tumbles down the figure’s face, its strands depicted with stylized humor, like pieces of rope or thick spaghetti. Both the feathers and the braid are highly potent symbols within Native American tradition, the feathers especially embodying the noble virtues of trust, honor and strength. The gift of an eagle feather is one of the most cherished items, since much Indian tradition symbolizes the eagle as a spiritual creature. Lichtenstein depicts not one feather, but a pair, the number two being another highly significant number within Native American mythology (Bald Eagles usually have two eggs, their feather can be divided into two parts, and the number two represents the binary forces at work in the world: good/evil, male/female, etc.) The braid also takes on significance within Native American tradition, symbolizing strength and unity, with each tribe dictating its own unique conventions in terms of how it’s worn. Braiding was also a useful tool in the weaving of Native American baskets.

Typical to this period, Lichtenstein mixed and matched a range of imagery in these, some of the most complex paintings of his career. In Head with Braid and Feathers, Lichtenstein conflates both Surrealism and American Indian motifs while also referencing the history of trompe l’oeil painting (this last aspect is especially intriguing, given the way Lichtenstein’s yellow feather is tacked on to the surface, an illusionary trick used by 19th Century trompe l’oeil painters like William Harnett). In borrowing from Native American culture, Lichtenstein acknowledges the extent to which he combined different symbols and designs without staying true to one particular source. He recalled: “They’re a mixture of every kind of Indian design from Northwest Indians to Plains Indians to Pueblo. They are no particular tribe of Indians....anything that I could think of that was ‘Indian’ got into them....the cliché of the Indian got into them” (G. Stavitsky and T. Johnson, Roy Lichtenstein: American Indian Encounters, Canada, 2006, p. 25). Lichtenstein’s paintings from this era hinted at the stereotypical, romanticized notion of the American Indian and its fabled role in forming the great American West. Much in the same way Lichtenstein appropriated the overblown, dramatic story-telling style of comic-books, with their heroes and villains in the epic battle of good-versus-evil, so too did he turn to the mythology of Native American culture, its rich legends and symbolism.

In Head with Braid and Feathers, Lichtenstein knowingly engaged in a decades-long conversation with disparate artistic genres, to create a fundamentally new style that allowed him the capacity to innovate while pursuing the same artistic conventions that had dominated the past two decades. The curators of his recent retrospective knowingly described: “He was the first artist to systematically dismantle - through appropriation, repetition, stylization, and parody - the history of modern art, and he himself is now an inviolable fixture in that very canon. By rendering reproductions of paintings plucked from a familiar litany of Modernist art history, Lichtenstein conflated disparate genre subjects and styles, though not without deference and respect” (J. Rondeau and S. Wagstaff, Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago, May-September 2012, p. 20).

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