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Head with Braids

Head with Braids
signed and dated '© rf Lichtenstein '79' (on the reverse)
oil and Magna on canvas
50 x 40 in. (127 x 101.6 cm.)
Painted in 1979.
The Estate of Roy Lichtenstein, New York
Private collection
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2011
L. Alloway, Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1983, p. 94, no. 95 (illustrated).
Kodansha Ltd., Contemporary Great Masters: Roy Lichtenstein, Tokyo, 1992, no. 39 (illustrated).
G. Serafini, Roy Lichtenstein, Florence, 2000, p. 45.
G. Glueck, "A pop artist's fascination with the first Americans," The New York Times, 25 December 2005, p. E5.
G. Stavitsky and T. Johnson, "Roy Lichtenstein: American Indian Encounters," American Art Review, December 2005, p. 126 (illustrated).
R. Kalina, "Lichtenstein's Indian Territory," Art in America, April 2006, p. 145 (illustrated).
L. Kirwin, Artists in their Studios: Images from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, New York, 2007, pp. 162 and 163 (illustrated).
Eau Claire, University of Wisconsin, Foster Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein, January-February 1980.
Oregon, Portland Center for the Visual Arts, Roy Lichtenstein: Recent Paintings and Sculptures, March-April 1980 (illustrated on the exhibition poster).
Saint Louis Art Museum, Roy Lichtenstein 1970-1980, May-June 1981, pp. 111 and 133 (illustrated).
New Jersey, Monclair Art Museum; Santa Fe, Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of New Mexico; Washington, Tacoma Art Museum; Water Mill, Parrish Art Museum and Indianapolis, Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Roy Lichtenstein: American Indian Encounters, October 2005-April 2007, pp. 6, 37 and 70, no. 24 (illustrated).
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Post lot text
This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.

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Lot Essay

Roy Lichtenstein’s Head with Braids is an exceptionally rare work that epitomizes the artist’s formal ingenuity and thematic predilections. Although this is a bright and visually engaging work primarily articulated in bold primary colors, an odd, otherworldly quality emerges through this face, or mask. An exaggerated faux wood grain takes up the composition, its rippling, hypnotic forms at once recognizable as wood. Yet it evokes a strange, fantastical atmosphere through the juxtaposition of the bright red pattern against a white background. In dialogue with surrealist masters such as Max Ernst, the pictorial influence of the American West and the aesthetic legacy of the Native Americans adds another referential layer to the present work. While somewhat menacing, a sense of humor pervades Head with Braids--two square eyes and an upturned mouth with sharp triangular teeth are incised into the wooden plane and out of the cheeks emerge two bright yellow braids of hair. Native American symbols such as a bear claw, depicted at the bottom of the work, and a feather, resting on the upper right side of the face, bring together two different traditions of art history to create something that can only be described as wholly Lichtensteinian. Ever synonymous with the Pop Art movement, the artist presents us with an image that is both formally striking and rich with iconographic content, all while in dialogue with surrealist art history, a stone’s throw from the likes of René Magritte or Salvador Dalí.
In line with his iconic pop style, Roy Lichtenstein’s work is witty and coolly ironic, marking the start of a new era of art-making that seemed to leave the self-seriousness and pretentiousness of Abstract Expressionism in the dust. Instead of focusing on epic myths from antiquity, Lichtenstein painted large-scale snippets from popular comic books. In Abstract Expressionism, the gravitas of a work was found in the purely formal qualities and the action of its creation--a Pollock is defined by its rhythmic splattering of paint just as a Rothko imparts its meaning via the subtle interplay of color and form that seems to float on top of the canvas. Lichtenstein’s radical departure is two-fold- he reintroduces figural depiction and eliminates the gestural brushstroke. Lichtenstein’s process involved projecting images onto a canvas and then painting these images in with a toothbrush through a grid of small dots. This process gave his large-scale paintings the look and feel of a comic book page. In doing so, Lichtenstein takes what was once organic and makes it mechanical. This is not unlike Warhol’s method of production in his famed studio--cheekily known as ‘The Factory’--in which works were produced relatively simply and en masse at the artist’s whim. This method of production aligned itself more readily with the post-WWII boom years of the United States and the surge of consumption and consumerism that followed.
Head with Braids is an incredibly unique work from the artist’s oeuvre. Roy Lichtenstein’s American Indian series, to which the present work belongs, consists of only about a dozen paintings. Lichtenstein’s fascination with American pop culture is well-known, but he was also interested in the oft-overlooked aspects of America. In the late 1970s, Lichtenstein lived with his wife near the Shinnecock Indian Reservation on Long Island, New York, and it is here that his attentive study of Native American objects and imagery began. Akin to artists such as Jasper Johns, Frank Stella and Donald Judd, who all collected Native American objects, Lichtenstein cultivated his own collection of objects by the First Americans, along with a personal library of 17 books and catalogues on Native American art. There is a subtle combination of seriousness and play embodied by many Native American objects that Lichtenstein no doubt felt a kinship with, alongside a Picasso-esque embrace of the dialectical use of color and line.
In his review of the 2005 show at the Montclair Art Museum that solely focused on Lichtenstein’s Native American motifs, Richard Kalina noted the omnipresence of Native American depictions in the United States: “We see the Indian in place, product and organization names in a variety of popular entertainment forms and also in the child's world of cowboys and Indians, summer camps and wood lore. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Indian figured prominently in the academic history paintings and genre sculptures that showed up so often in popular books and reproductions.” (R. Kalina ‘Lichtenstein’s Indian Territory’, Art in America, vol.94, no.4, April 2006, pp.145). In Head with Braids, Lichtenstein takes advantage of this ubiquity to create an image that is oddly familiar yet impossible to place.
Although Lichtenstein is well-known for his reinterpretation of modern European master paintings, Head with Braids details the artist’s ability to deal with subject matter outside of the conventional realms of art history. By employing these Native American motifs, Lichtenstein’s work harkens back to a rich history of the Red Power movement in the United States, and the struggle for reservation policy change during the 1970’s. A grimacing mouth and hollow square eyes populate the wooden plane, not a living trunk but instead a flat plank of wood. Head with Braids destabilizes western preconceptions of high and low art, instead placing the legacy of Native American art alongside Cubism, Surrealism, and European art. Visually enchanting and rife with multivalent subject matter, Head with Braids is a truly unique work that places the creative and analytical genius of Roy Lichtenstein on full display.

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