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A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection

Sky and Water

Sky and Water
signed, inscribed and dated '© rf Lichtenstein '85' (on the reverse)
oil and Magna on canvas
66 x 96 in. (167.6 x 243.8 cm.)
Painted in 1985.
Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York and Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco
Private collection, New York, 2003
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2009
R. Lichtenstein, Roy Lichtenstein's Last Still Life, Cornell, 1998, p. 8.
Ohio, The Butler Institute of American Art, 50th National Midyear Exhibition, June-August 1986.
Tel Aviv Museum; Frankfurt, Schirn Kunsthalle, The Drawings of Roy Lichtenstein, November 1987–May 1988.
Columbus, Wexner Center for the Arts, Roy Lichtenstein, October 1993-September 1994, pp.267 and 393, no. 210 (illustrated).
Zurich, De Pury and Luxembourg, Roy Lichtenstein: Brushstrokes, March-June 2002, pp. 81 and 84, no. 17 (illustrated on the front cover).
Further details
This work will be included in the Catalogue Raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.

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Lot Essay

Though best known for his iconic comic book paintings composed of Ben-Day dots, Roy Lichtenstein’s oeuvre developed into equally influential later work which became much more expressive and personal. Sky and Water is unabashedly sincere, exhibiting none of the cool remove of his earlier work. Exhibited in his seminal 1993 retrospective, it is a crucial painting that expands the discourse on the artist’s canonical career. Its five-and-a-half foot by eight-foot canvas allows us to inhabit this landscape, whose atmospheric expanse recalls Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (1872) or Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’s Sleep (1867-1870). Sky and Water is an expressionistic and painterly work, reminding us that Lichtenstein was always as interested in the medium as he was in his deadpan subject matter. He investigated perception from every angle, all in an effort to expand our collective understanding of how we see and communicate.

With its gestural, semi-abstract marks, Sky and Water stands apart from Lichtenstein’s characteristically crisp, graphic paintings. It is organized around a loose, sliding horizon line. Surrounding it are otherworldly yellows, reds, pinks, greens, and blues that intersect at times with sobering blacks and greys. Regimented, screen-like blue lines that are evocative of Lichtenstein’s signature comic book style come apart at the behest of abstract brushstrokes. In this period, Lichtenstein often applied collaged cutouts of brushstrokes to the canvas as he decided their color and placement. These marks are much looser than his Brushstroke series of 1965-1966, which has been read as an interrogation of Abstract Expressionism. However, there is nothing parodic about Sky and Water, which instead feels earnest and poetic. Relatedly, this is not a unilaterally sunny work, adding to its lyrical power. Lichtenstein captures instead the capricious nature of the sea, with its choppy waves and looming clouds. Water had always interested the artist, and here it becomes its own subject, or even a metaphor for the ebb and flow of paint itself. In this way, “The brushstroke and its various formats reaches its apotheosis in the paintings of the later eighties…[such as] Lichtenstein’s Sky and Water of 1985” (F. Tuten, Roy Lichtenstein’s Last Still Life, exh. cat., Ithaca, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, 1998, n.p.). In his earlier Brushstroke series and his sculptures of the 1980s, he turns paint into a discrete object, whereas in the present work, he allows it to exist on its own terms.

The 1980s were a time of formal and thematic inventiveness for Lichtenstein, and Sky and Water continues his interest in expressive landscapes that would occupy him for the rest of his life. Artist and critic David Salle writes that Lichtenstein’s later work exhibits a “kind of simultaneous history-remembering and -dismantling” as well as a “an increasingly pure classicism” (D. Salle, “Roy Lichtenstein’s Reflection Paintings,” in Roy Lichtenstein Reflected, exh. cat., New York, Mitchell-Innes and Nash, 2010, p. 10). There is certainly a sense that Sky and Water has a timeless quality, as the best landscape paintings do, like Caspar David Friedrich’s The Monk by the Sea (1808-1810) or John Constable’s Cloud Study (1822). This nearly surreal presence emerges from Lichtenstein’s removal of context, allowing the painting to take on its own life. Critic Ryan Steadman writes, “More than ever in his career, Lichtenstein was communicating via pure formal elements—lines, colors, and shapes—and the complex histories they carried” (R. Steadman, “Roy Lichtenstein’s Totally Awesome 80s, Observer, October 14, 2015, In Water and Sky, these complex histories come together in its windblown, soaring pigments.

Lichtenstein also created murals in this period, including Mural with Blue Brushstroke for the new Equitable Tower in New York (now known as the Axa Equitable Center), which occupied him from 1985-1986. Here, Lichtenstein combines references to his previous work, like Sponge (1962) and Girl with Ball (1961), with a bisecting blue waterfall. It shows that that whether working with a seascape or a comic book appropriation, his work is contiguous and part of the same ongoing aesthetic project. Indeed, a number of contemporary artists, like Ann Craven and Maureen Gallace, could be considered descendants of Lichtenstein’s radical, interdisciplinary use of landscape.

Over five decades, Lichtenstein considered every corner of art history. He pioneered his enduring style, even as he considered the movements that resulted in postwar and postmodern art—the result of a democratic impulse, to be sure. There are certainly knowledge and skill involved, but, as proven by Sky and Water, there is also a soulful, even romantic, imagination. While Pop art could be understood purely critical or ironic, Lichtenstein’s later career clarifies the emotional, longing roots of his oeuvre. He suggests that looking to the page or to the supermarket shelf is not all that different than looking to the sky. They are all part of the grand and minute moments that comprise modern life.

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