Roy Lichtenstein’s epic painting, Interior: Perfect Pitcher,is an encyclopedic retrospective of his unique artistic legacy. Containing many of the subjects and practices that sustained his long and prolific career, it also contains the first example of his celebrated late nudes, in addition to being the final painting in his series of Interiors. Painted towards the end of his life, this large-scale canvas is reflective of Lichtenstein’s unique Pop aesthetic, and also of his deep understanding and appreciation of art history. Using his iconic Ben-Day dots and hard-edged lines, the painting features a striking flame-haired woman (reminiscent of his iconic Girl paintings from the 1960s), plus other art-historic themes, including interior scenes, classic still lifes, Cubist compositions, his clever renditions of the reflections on glass and mirrored surfaces, plus his melodic painting of a musical score. Acquired by the present owner in 2002 directly from the Estate of Roy Lichtenstein, it has remained in their private collection for the past almost twenty years. Recapitulating the key themes of the artist’s classic 1960s paintings by integrating comic book heroines and everyday objects of consumer culture, with an investigation into the nature of visual aesthetics, Lichtenstein’s Interior: Perfect Pitcher becomes the perfect “picture,” a panoply of a lifetime of artistic innovation.
This monumental picture displays the interior of an impeccably-styled domestic setting. A large sectional sofa snakes its way around the room; on it rest multi-colored cushions in a Mondrian-esque palette of primary red, yellow and blue. A square glass-topped table with a round ashtray occupies the middle of the space, and across from it, a round table upon which sits one of the titular “perfect pitchers” and a red book. Adorning the walls are a series of paintings that reflect Lichtenstein’s interest in the history of art; from the classic nude, to Cubist collages, and an arrangement of geometric vessels that recall the work of Giorgio Morandi, each of these paintings can be read as a nod to significant moments in the art historical canon.
The [Interior] paintings suggest that to make art is to engage in a game of reflection and refraction that stretches across history and between works, enveloping artist, image and viewer alike.”
Lichtenstein has long been an artist who sought innovation while continuing to work within his trademark style, and during this period he began to translate the comic heroines of the ‘60s into classical nudes. In the present work, the artist returns to the DC Comics that he had first used in 1963 as the basis for the sleek red-haired nude that is displayed upon the interior wall, and whose fiery coif stands in brisk contrast to the sensuous curves of her naked body. The ‘60s comic book Falling in Love #59 provides the source image for this nude, with other elements inspired by a black-and-white illustration of a sectional sofa, along with a musical motif that he would later use in his painting—Unchained Melody, 1994—thathe includes along the left interior wall. With all the mastery of a great conductor, Lichtenstein arranges these seemingly disparate elements within a beautifully-composed interior scene.
Rather than merely copying from the original material, Lichtenstein made several revisions to his red-haired nude that can be traced from his original drawing, to the collage study, and to the final painting. As in the original Falling in Love panel, the lascivious gaze of his heroine conveys a keen sense of sexuality, yet in stripping her bare, Lichtenstein subtly twists and elongates the figure's body, so that it fills the picture plane. Not unlike Ingres’s Odalisques, Lichtenstein lengthens and elongates her figure, in order to lend a palpable sensuality and softness to his otherwise crisply-rendered form. He renders her ‘60s coiffure and luscious lips in a vibrant, flaming red. Ben-Day dots of varying sizes and bold striations are used to convey the tender skin of her nude body.
By the time Interior: Perfect Pitcher was painted, Lichtenstein had developed a rigorous working method that required a series of carefully executed steps en route to a finished painting. He generally began by making a drawing that was based on a commercially-printed image or advertisement, which he then projected onto museum board up to half the size of the finished work. This he developed into a collage, using printed and painted paper that allowed him to swap in and out background colors and Ben-Day dots. There is a high level of craftsmanship to these paintings, which were invaluable to the artist’s working process since they allowed for a great degree of flexibility and experimentation, in which Lichtenstein perfected and reworked key formal elements.
In Interior: Perfect Pitcher, Lichtenstein unites the two great genres that have long dominated his work—comic books and Modernism—and incorporates them within a pristine domestic environment. The two paintings that hang alongside Lichtenstein’s nude recall the Modernist still lifes of Picasso: one with two pitchers whose skewed angles recall Cubist collage and another that depicts the basic principles of draughtsmanship in cylinder, cone and sphere. In these two paintings, Lichtenstein eliminates the painterly brushwork of his Modernist forebears in favor of the Ben-Day dots, diagonals and precise black outlines that define his style. In a painstaking process that often took weeks to complete, Lichtenstein absolutely eliminates any trace of gesture, so that the finished work appears nearly mechanically-reproduced, technically “perfect” as the title cunningly indicates.
A key element within the genre of still life paintings, the pitcher would have held great significance for Lichtenstein—as well as any artist in general—and would have recalled the great Modern masterpieces of Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse. In fact, the pitcher frequently recurs in Lichtenstein’s work. It appeared in his first interior painting Artist’s Studio No. 1 of 1973 and several other paintings such as Still Life with Picasso. Lichtenstein’s Artist’s Studio No. 1 was itself inspired by Matisse, so it is likely that he would have visited the blockbuster Matisse Retrospective of 1993 that was held at the MoMA, which included several still lifes with pitchers.
In Interior: Perfect Pitcher, Lichtenstein depicts the modernist trope but instead of strictly copying from Matisse, he transforms the pitcher into his own idiomatic vernacular, simplifying the form into a black-and-white schematic that uses diagonal cross-hatching to indicate shadow and contoured with thick black outlines. His rendering makes no attempt at verisimilitude but rather adheres to his signature style. Lichtenstein worked from reproductions rather than life, so there is a further flattening and simplification that is a shared commonality of the very comic book panels and advertisements upon which the painting is based. To further complicate this notion of reality versus replication, Lichtenstein also includes a pitcher near the lower edge, this one rendered exactly as in the painting-within-a-painting, but placed upon a table to indicate a real-life object. If Lichtenstein has removed the pitcher from the wall and places it within the “real” world of common objects, what does this indicate about his view of “high” art?
Lichtenstein’s extensive knowledge of art history and his deep understanding of how the visual information contained within a painting is conveyed, is on full display in the present work. One of the most important paintings of the last decade of the artist’s life, Lichtenstein transports the original concerns of his classic 60s paintings into a new realm, situated within the pristine domestic interior. As with the best examples of the artist’s work, Interior with Perfect Pitcher engages in a dialogue between the artist and the viewer, and even, with the history of art itself.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).