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

Deep in Thought

Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)
Deep in Thought
signed and dated '© rf Lichtenstein '80' (on the reverse)
oil and Magna on canvas
50 x 60 in. (127 x 152.4 cm.)
Painted in 1980.
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Mayor Gallery, London
Private collection, Florida
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 13 November 1991, lot 53
Private collection, United States
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 10 November 2010, lot 71
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Roy Lichtenstein: 1970-1980, exh. cat., St. Louis Art Museum, 1981, p. 135.
London, Mayor Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein: Recent Paintings, October-November 1980.

Brought to you by

Joanna Szymkowiak
Joanna Szymkowiak

Lot Essay

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

Throughout the course of his career, Roy Lichtenstein reinvented his signature Pop Art idiom in countless ways, finding ingenious solutions to the age-old problem of creating new work whilst adhering to his established artistic vernacular. In the 1970s, the artist tackled Modern art in his quest for reinvention, delving deep into Cubism, Surrealism, Futurism, and in the present work, German Expressionism.

Painted in 1980, Deep in Thought distills the pictorial innovations of the German Expressionist painters through a distinctively Pop Art lens, where sharp, raking diagonals and a striking palette of vivid hues come together to create a stunning portrait of the artist’s process. Head in hands, the solitary human figure is seated before the viewer, locked within the interior processes of the mind. Here, Lichtenstein’s familiar blonde heroine is rendered in the sharp diagonal contours and distinctive color palette pioneered by Die Brücke artists Emil Nolde and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Lichtenstein had seen a collection of German Expressionist woodcuts while visiting Los Angeles in 1978, and he was impressed by their powerful visual impact, especially the succinct visual language of the process, which coincidentally shared visual affinities with the comic book panel illustrations of Lichtenstein’s earlier work. He immediately embarked upon a new series, to which Deep in Thought belongs. It provided a unique visual allegory to the role that inspiration played in the artist’s process.

“Forget the subjects depicted; forget all thoughts--the paintings make your retinas dance,” wrote art critic I. Michael Danoff shortly after Deep in Thought was created (I.M. Danoff, “Paintings That Make Your Retinas Dance,” Artnews, November 1981, p. 122). Indeed, considering the dazzling visual cacophony of Deep in Thought, with its vibrant palette rendered on an impressive scale, Danoff’s comment seems particularly apt. Seated before the viewer looms an enigmatic, brooding figure, whose sharp, angular features are rendered in flat planes of unmodulated color and muscular black outlines. The figure’s face is all angles and sharp points, bisected by a strong black line running down the center of the face, dividing it in two halves of raking light on one side and shadow on the other. In Lichtenstein’s hands, a series of blue and white diagonal lines illuminate the figure’s face and arm, while shadow is conveyed by flat areas of green. Here, Lichtenstein’s consummate skill as a brilliant colorist is unfurled to spectacular display, as the marriage of blue, green, yellow, white and black is uniquely beautiful. Head in hands, Lichtenstein’s figure wears an expression of deep contemplation, while the tools of her trade—pencil and paper—remain ominously blank. Behind her looms the ultimate expression of her life’s work, a finished painting, framed and hung upon the wall. Locked within the situation that all artists and writers fear, the figure struggles to capture the nascent seeds of inspiration, wrestling within the recesses of her own mind. A cascading zigzag of yellow hair reaches down to touch the empty sheet. Could this be the thunderbolt of illumination striking at last?

Lichtenstein’s Expressionist series comprises a relatively small group of paintings executed between 1979 and 1980. The impetus for the series lay in Lichtenstein’s discovery of an excellent collection of German Expressionist woodcuts belonging to the Los Angeles collector Robert Rifkind. “His first mission when he arrived in LA one year was that he wanted to go see the Rifkind Collection,” described Sidney Felsen, the co-founder of Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles. “He spent half a day there, at least, and was very impressed by what he saw and began making these images. [That was] the way he worked, he had to see the Rifkind Collection, go back home and create…” (S.B. Felson, quoted in Roy Lichtenstein: Expressionism, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, Paris, 2013, p. 100). The collection included works by Emil Nolde, Otto Dix, Max Pechstein and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who together formed the influential Die Brücke group. A truly avant-garde movement, the Expressionist artists of Die Brücke had organized in Dresden, Germany in 1905. They portrayed the angst of the modern era, using harsh, angular forms and wild, unnatural colors. Theirs was an artform meant to provoke the prevailing bourgeois attitudes of the late-Victorian world, seeking a “freedom opposed to the values of the comfortably established older generation,” according to Kirchner in the group’s manifesto (L. Kirchner, Manifesto of the Brücke Artists’ Group, 1906). They employed the visual language of abstraction as a way to express a deeper, more meaningful portrayal of the modern world.

While the artists of Die Brücke deliberately employed a language of abstraction in direct challenge to the prevailing norms of the artistic establishment, their work had, by the time Lichtenstein developed an interest in it, been reproduced in countless books and magazines. Lichtenstein was quick to observe that, in the collection of Expressionist woodcuts that inspired him, the once-radical visual language of abstraction employed by Die Brücke had been watered down for easy legibility, essentially becoming a parody of what had once been considered earth-shattering. Having been distilled within the neat format of the humble woodcut, the visual impact had been reduced to “modernist wallpaper.” Lichtenstein, too, knew the horrors of this phenomenon all too well, as he was witness to the proliferation of his own Pop art paintings on the covers of magazines, in posters, tote bags, key chains and countless other tchotchkes that boiled down Pop until it had nearly lost its once incendiary impact. In turning to Expressionism, Lichtenstein wrestled with the legacy of Pop, ultimately finding an ingenious, self-referential solution to the problem.

Deep in Thought belongs to a subset of Expressionist portraits that portray the solitary human figure, a subject so dear to the German Expressionists as to now be reduced to visual cliché. Lichtenstein’s portrayal takes this notion one step further, presenting an epic visual allegory of the modern artist’s struggle for inspiration. “Where the rest of us have basic needs, the artist has ‘vision,’” the prominent British art historian Charles Harrison described (C. Harrison, quoted in op. cit., 2013, p. 16), setting the role of the artist apart from the everyday world. In doing so, Lichtenstein’s Deep in Thought is a humorous reference to the perils of artisthood, where the daily struggle for inspiration and enlightenment is rendered in the artist’s wry wit.

“It is German Expressionism that connects most directly with Lichtenstein’s interest,” wrote Diane Waldman in 1993, “and indeed, Lichtenstein’s Expressionist paintings have been re-appraised in the past decade, as critics reexamine the series to find ever greater links to the fundamental concerns that the artist wrestled with throughout his career” (D. Waldman, Roy Lichtenstein, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1993, p. 253). ”Indeed, while Lichtenstein is often remembered as the artist who, by painting comic books, brought popular culture into the domain of ‘high art,’” the art critic Brenda Schmahmann reminds us, “it may, in fact, be considerably more apt to remember him for the sustained ways in which his works engage critically with ‘high art’ and its various tropes” (B. Schmahmann, op. cit., 2013, p. 17).

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