With his celebrated ‘Nudes’ series from the mid-1990s, Roy Lichtenstein’s career came full circle. Its 20 paintings saw him return to the comic-book heroines that had helped first propel him to fame — and the forefront of the Pop art movement — in the early 1960s.
On 10 July, Nude with Joyous Painting (1994), a monumentally scaled standout work from the series, is being offered in ONE, a new sale format at Christie’s connecting Hong Kong, Paris, London and New York. Ana Maria Celis, Head of Evening Sale, Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s, describes the work as ‘the most important example of Lichtenstein’s last great series of Nudes to have ever appeared at auction’.
The painting features a blonde American beauty alone in her bedroom, wearing nothing but a blue headband and red lipstick. She’s startled by some unexpected disturbance out of picture to the right. Lichtenstein crops in tight on her body, creating a sense of tension worthy of a Hitchcock thriller.
Lichtenstein painted the work in his signature ‘Ben-Day dot’ style, mimicking the agglomeration of small coloured dots used for printing comic books in the mid-20th century. While the artist adopted the style throughout his career, comic books ceased to provide the actual source material for his scenes for the best part of three decades — between his early works (such as Nurse) and the Nudes series.
The protagonist of Nude with Joyous Painting was derived from a vintage DC Comics series called Girls’ Romance — specifically, a bather named Gloria, who’s saved from perilous waters by a sun-kissed lifeguard named Bob. Lichtenstein removed her from the beach setting and relocated her in a domestic interior.
With the canvases in this series, Lichtenstein tackled one of the most longstanding of genres: the nude. ‘It was his way of exploring the whole medium of painting, in what would turn out to be his last body of work,’ explains Celis.
‘You can see references here to examples by Titian, by Matisse, by Picasso. At this mature stage of his career, Lichtenstein decided he wanted to deal with the history of art head-on.’
Nude with Joyous Painting was unveiled at New York’s Leo Castelli Gallery in November 1994. In its review of the show, the New York Daily News declared: ‘The king of the blown-up comic-book frame had seemed to be settling into a quiet, Old Masterly period of late — but he’s broken out with a bang with his new series of nudes.’
Just months before his solo show opened, Lichtenstein went to see Picasso & the Weeping Women: The Years of Marie-Therese Walter & Dora Maar, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition featured Picasso paintings, from the 1920s to the 1940s, of his two eponymous lovers — and the nude works included are sometimes cited as having been an influence on Lichtenstein’s own. Where the American’s nudes differ from those of all his predecessors, though, is their cartoon aesthetic.
On a purely technical level, Nude with Joyous Painting reveals an artist in complete mastery of his craft. As a colourist, Lichtenstein deployed an array of almost 50 colours — in contrast to his breakthrough works, when he relied pretty much solely on red, yellow, blue and black.
The artist also tightly clustered his dots in certain parts of the picture to denote shadow, while making dots in other areas very soft, to denote light. The work duly flits between realistic, three-dimensional representation and decorative, two-dimensional patterning.
Of note, too, is the way the artist’s nudes are all depicted on their own (or with another female nude). The handsome leading men who accompanied the heroines in his 1960s scenes — such as Kiss III — are now absent, and the pictures seem much more contemporary as a result.
‘These nudes take pleasure in their own company, without the slightest hint of needing or missing a man,’ wrote the art critic Avis Berman. ‘They are not paralyzed by their emotions… This world flourishes exuberantly without men or engagement rings or kisses.’ In the case of Nude with Joyous Painting, the subject is surprised, but by no means scared, by the disturbance at hand.
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Lichtenstein died in 1997, aged 73, and was still working on his Nudes series at the time. ‘Not many artists get to finish their career with something that so beautifully circles back to the start,’ says Celis. ‘But that’s what Lichtenstein did, revisiting what he made at the beginning and transforming it into something new — via his bold reference to the canon of Western art. Nude with Joyous Painting is a tour de force.’
Footage from Roy Lichtenstein, 1975. USA. Directed by Michael Blackwood. Courtesy of Michael Blackwood Productions