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Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more The Collection of Robert and Sylvia Olnick
Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)

Despair

Details
Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)
Despair
signed and dated 'rf Lichtenstein '79' (on the reverse)
oil and Magna on canvas
30 x 24 in. (76.2 x 61 cm.)
Painted in 1979.
Provenance
James Goodman Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1986
Literature
J. Cowart, Roy Lichtenstein 1970-1980, New York, 1981, p. 135.
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Sara Friedlander
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Lot Essay

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

Executed in bold primary colors, Lichtenstein’s expressionist head is one of the earliest paintings from his series based on German Expressionism. Here, the artist arranges blocks of vibrant color, strong diagonals and thick black outlines into a silhouette of a male head, thrown back in an apparent show of anguish. The sturdy lines, chromatic intensity and angular features head all combine to produce an image that emits both emotional and visual power. Strikingly, Lichtenstein has abandoned his signature Ben-Day dots in favor of strong striations, diagonal lines in red and blue which act to define the areas where strong light falls across the subject’s face. Red abuts yellow, which then is divided from the blue by a substantial black border—the overall effect being one of vibrating chromatic intensity.

The origins of this series can be found in 1978 when, during a trip to Los Angeles, Lichtenstein became captivated by Robert Gore Rifkind’s seminal collection of German Expressionist prints and illustrated books. Inspired by what he saw, the artist began to produce works that borrowed stylistic elements found in Expressionist paintings. Lichtenstein rejected the idea of referring to specific paintings, as he had done in his earlier homages to art history. Instead he took from them the formal ideas and guiding principles of the Expressionist movement and combined them with his own stylistic ideals. “I didn’t quote specific pieces as I had done with earlier works derived from Monet and Picasso,” he said, “but I did keep in mind such artists as Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel. In a certain sense, I have always tried to eliminate the meaning of the original. If I had actually kept in mind German Expressionism in my latest series of paintings, then my work would have seemed to be Expressionist. But for my own subjects I make use of a style rather than a specific painting” (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in P. Jodidio, Connaissance des arts, No. 349, March 1981, translated from the French by Michael D. Haggerty; reprinted in G. Mercurio, Roy Lichtenstein: Meditations on Art, exh. cat., La Trienale di Milano, 2010, p. 261). By plucking stylistic strings while leaving the raw emotional tone of the movement behind, Lichtenstein’s use of Expressionism and other pivotal moments in art history called all remaining boundaries into question.

While studying fine art at Ohio State University, Lichtenstein’s college professor Hoyt Sherman established the foundation for Lichtenstein’s understanding of the figure/ground relationship in what he termed “perceptual unity.” Using Picasso as a reference, Sherman taught Lichtenstein to create a unified plane in which figure and background were combined within a singular two-dimensional field. By their very nature, the Expressionist woodcuts helped Lichtenstein to achieve this sense of unity. They were able to convey a modicum of information within a small format that could be easily reproduced. The conveyed imagery needed to be bold, striking and strongly-outlined in order to withstand the demands of the printing process. It is not surprising that Lichtenstein would have been drawn to these Expressionist prints, as they share so much in common his most-famous source material: comic books. Like the woodcuts, comic books leant themselves naturally to mass production and the concept of “perceptual unity” that Lichtenstein sought to achieve; they were able to convey a significant amount of information within a single, two-dimensional square format, rendered in bold colors and strong outlines that made for easy reproducibility. Indeed, these woodcuts might be seen as the ‘comic books’ of the early twentieth century.

In Despair, Lichtenstein uses the formal vocabulary of the Expressionists purely as a jumping off point from which to explore his own, signature style. For though they are based upon Expressionist imagery, Lichtenstein’s paintings remain resolutely his own, as if he’s distilled the most essential elements of Expressionism necessary to his purposes. Though he may incorporate the great masters of art history in his work, Lichtenstein never simply copies their work, but rather works through them, to translate their Expressionist vernacular into his own, idiosyncratic style. As he told Bruce Glaser in 1964, “The things that I have apparently parodied I actually admire” (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in B. Glaser, “Oldenburg, Lichtenstein, Warhol: A Discussion,” Artforum, Vol. 4, No. 6, February 1966, p. 23).

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