Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more The Robert B. and Beatrice C. Mayer Family Collection
Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)

Kiss III

Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)
Kiss III
signed and dated 'rf Lichtenstein '62' (on the reverse)
Magna on canvas
64 x 48 in. (162.6 x 121.9 cm.)
Painted in 1962.
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1964
Art International, vol. 9, December 1964, p. 52 (illustrated).
J. Coplans, ed., Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1972, p. 41.
T. Hendra, Brad '61: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1993, p. 56 (illustrated in color).
G. Frei and N. Printz, eds.,The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings and Sculpture 1961-1963, vol. 1, New York, 2002, p. 252, fig. 183 (installation view illustrated).
G. Bader, Hall of Mirrors: Roy Lichtenstein and the Face of Painting in the 1960s, Cambridge, 2010, p. 221.
M. Hand, The Passionate Collector: Robert B. Mayer’s Adventures in Art, Chicago, 2011, pp. 78, 95-96 and 144 (illustrated in color and installation views illustrated in color).
Los Angeles to New York: Dwan Gallery, 1959-1971, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, 2016, pp. 338-339 (installation view illustrated).
Los Angeles, Dwan Gallery, The Arena of Love, January-February 1965, no. 19.
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Joanna Szymkowiak
Joanna Szymkowiak

Lot Essay

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

Painted by one of the foremost figures of American Pop Art, Kiss III (1962) is a pivotal work from one of Roy Lichtenstein’s most lauded bodies of work—diverging from his Abstract Expressionist compatriots—as the artist brought together the previously divergent worlds of popular culture and high art. Painted the same year as the artist’s inaugural solo exhibition at the legendary Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, works such as this began pulling from the pages of comic books and enlarging the sampled imagery with meticulous detail. While effectively reproducing extant imagery, Lichtenstein was clear that his works should be viewed for their formal qualities rather than their enticing subject matter. He noted, “My use of evenly repeated dots and diagonal lines and uninflected color areas suggest that my work is right where it is, right on the canvas, definitely not a window into the world” (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in J. Cowart, (ed.), Roy Lichtenstein: Beginning to End, exh. cat., Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 2007, p. 52). By positioning himself as a crossover between the formalist doctrines of Clement Greenberg and the populist materials of periodicals and advertisements, Lichtenstein established a dichotomy between the perception of high and low art as one of the essential points of his expansive oeuvre, and firmly cemented himself as a figurehead of American art in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Clearly depicted with bold black outlines, on the surface Kiss III depicts a man and woman sharing a close embrace. Both figures have their eyes closed as the man’s large hand presses down on the woman’s shoulder. Their lips are planted in a passionate kiss that is echoed in the energetic shapes making up the explosive background. Rendered in primary colors with black and white additions, the composition mirrors the color scheme of mass market printing. By creating halftones through the use of small dots of color, Lichtenstein is able to further mimic these processes that rely on a restricted ink palette. While the areas of blue, red and yellow are flat and pure in their application, the peach skin and violet of the woman’s jacket show evidence of the artist’s replication of the Ben-Day dots used to create subtle shifts in color with a four-color printing process. Bands of intensity create subtle striping in these areas and further allude to cheap printing and the color illustrations of comics and newspaper advertisements. This interest in the very processes of image making was remarked upon by the artist’s second wife Dorothy when she intoned: “...when Roy worked, he would start with a very strong image, but once he decided what he was going to paint, he would try to get beyond the image to look at it as marks on a canvas--to look at it from as much of an abstract perspective as possible so that he wouldn’t just be reproducing a picture of something. [...] He was very interested in form and style” (D. Lichtenstein, quoted in J. Koons, “Conversation,” Women, exh. cat., New York, 2008, p.10). Rather than creating his own tableaus in the style of other comic artists, Lichtenstein investigated the processes by which these reproducible arts were made and distributed to a wide audience. Carefully selecting scenes like that of Kiss III, with its white starburst and bold black rays on a red ground behind the titular kiss, the artist engaged the audience immediately with the representative subject matter, and then asked them to further investigate the process through intense framing choices and the translation of printed matter into an exacting homage in acrylic on canvas.

Although not initiated by a concrete group of artists, Pop was characterized in the United States by a common reaction to the images employed by mass media and entertainment in the mid-20th century. Artists like Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist all approached the issue in different modes, but were united by their fascination with, and inevitable hesitance to accept without question, the inundation of advertisements and pop culture in America. Lichtenstein’s tact was to focus on images that were prevalent and cheap, but to paint them outside of their original tabloid context in order to highlight the artist’s hand as it converged nearly seamlessly with the bold, graphic style. While often categorized as a painter of comic-style panels, Lichtenstein’s actual appropriation from artists like Jack Kirby and other mainstays of American comics was primarily limited to the early 1960s period from which Kiss III hails. The printed originals were never copied exactly, but were instead used as a point of departure to explore framing, composition and to create a visual point of reference for audiences that would already have been aware of the style being employed by comic book artists. From these works, Lichtenstein established a recognizable iconography that easily traversed the boundary between gallery and supermarket pulp. Donald Judd, writing about a 1963 exhibition, noted, “Lichtenstein is representing representation—which is very different from simply representing an object or a view. The main quality of the work comes from the contrast between the comic panel, apparently copied, and the art, nevertheless present” (D. Judd, “A critical review of the 1963 exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery,” Arts Magazine, New York, November, 1963). The artist was interested less in creating new images than in starting a conversation about the proliferation of certain types of imagery within a broader cultural context.

During the 1940s and 50s, Lichtenstein dabbled in Cubism and the omnipresent Abstract Expressionism. Paradoxically, out of this deeply personal tendency the artist arrived at his detached, seemingly anonymous signature style. “I was sort of immersed in Abstract Expressionism,” Lichtenstein noted. “It was a kind of Abstract Expressionism with cartoons within the expressionist image. It’s too hard to picture, I think, and the paintings themselves weren’t very successful. [...] I did abstract paintings of sort of striped brushstrokes and within these in a kind of scribbly way were images of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny. In doing these paintings I had, of course, the original strip cartoons to look at, and the idea of doing one without apparent alteration just occurred to me. [...] I had this cartoon painting in my studio, and it was a little too formidable. [...] Having been more or less schooled as an Abstract Expressionist, it was quite difficult psychologically to do anything else” (R. Lichtenstein “BBC Interview with David Sylvester,” recorded in New York, January 1966, and reproduced in Some Kind of Reality: Roy Lichtenstein, exh. cat., Anthony D’Offay, London, 1997, p. 7). Even though works like Kiss III seem like mechanical productions, further enhanced by Lichtenstein’s use of even coats of Magna (an early acrylic paint), his precision in application belies a deft hand and a unified formal vision. Furthermore, by adopting the simplified style of mass market imagery, Lichtenstein merged the idea of the printed material with the physical picture plane. He was quick to note that the subjects were secondary to him in the overall process of his work, saying, “I don’t think the importance of the art has anything to do with the importance of the subject matter. I think importance resides more in the unity of the composition and in the inventiveness of perception” (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in Roy Lichtenstein Beginning to End, Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 2007, p. 128). Drawing on the all-over aesthetic of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, and by filling the canvas to the very edge, the artist placed emphasis not so much on the subject matter but on the literal structure of a painting as a flat surface.

In 1961, Lichtenstein broke with his earlier practice and began to reproduce the visual qualities of printed ephemera. Among his subjects were works based on advertisements (like Girl with Ball [1961]) and comics that featured war stories and romantic themes (of which Kiss III is a prime example). “At that time,” Lichtenstein later recounted, “I was interested in anything I could use as a subject that was emotionally strong—usually love, war, or something that was highly charged and emotional subject matter to be opposite to the removed and deliberate painting techniques. Cartooning itself usually consists of very highly charged subject matter carried out in standard, obvious, and removed techniques” (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in J. Coplands, (ed.), Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1972, p. 89). In these paintings, he preferred the flat, simple colors of commercial printing as well as the thick black outlines that were used to hide the imperfections inherent to offset printing on a massive scale. Arguably the most recognizable aspect the artist borrowed from his mainstream source material was the use of Ben-Day dots on a scale that rendered their original purpose of blending colors and half tones useless and instead evolved into a stylistic trope that became one of Lichtenstein’s calling cards. In early works like Kiss III, the dots are small and still hint at their origin, however in later works, the dots become visual indicators of the artist’s origins and his sly tribute to mechanical processes. By using stencils to fill his compositions with these tightly ordered points of color, Lichtenstein made sure that his paintings were obvious in their reference to mass-produced printing techniques. He wanted to make sure viewers knew that the works were not representative of the immediate subject matter, but rather the printed material from which he had borrowed.

Particularly influential to Lichtenstein’s career was his tutelage under the painter Hoyt T. Sherman who introduced his pupils to modernism during the early 1940s. Sherman was interested in ideas of perception, especially as they related to the everyday and the separation of pictorial representation from the real world. Thinking about a scene’s formal qualities over its context or perceived meaning was central to these teachings, and became one of the core tenets of Lichtenstein’s early practice. Sherman employed a “Flash Room” in his classes which Lichtenstein described as “a darkened room where images would be flashed on a screen for very brief intervals-about a tenth of a second. Something very simple to start, maybe just a few marks. And you would have a pile of paper, and you’d try to draw it. You’d get a very strong afterimage, a total impression, and then you’d draw it in the dark-the point being that you’d have to sense where the parts were in relation to the whole. The images became progressively more complex, and eventually you would go out and try to work the same way elsewhere-would try to bring home the same kind of sensing to your drawing without the mechanical aid of a flash room” (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in C. Tomkins, The Art of Roy Lichtenstein: Mural with Blue Brushstroke, New York, 1987, p. 14). Creating vivid compositions from the briefest of glances helped Lichtenstein to hone in on the strongest elements of his appropriated material and successfully frame them in a way that created powerful connections without the aid of text, extraneous context, or extensive narrative structure.

Maybe the most perplexing but telling aspect of Lichtenstein’s storied career was his ability to translate a near-universal mode into one of the most iconic personal styles of the 20th century. The artist, commenting on his approach, noted, “All painters take a personal attitude toward painting. What makes each object in the work is that it is organized by that artist’s vision. The style and the content are also different from anyone else’s. They are unified by the point of view—mine. This is the big tradition of art” (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in C. Tomkins, op. cit., p. 42). Keenly aware of art historical traditions as well as the influx of the mass media of capitalist advertising and entertainment, Lichtenstein’s ability to traverse the edges of these two mainstream modes resulted in a perfect fusion that grew into one of the most important American art movements.

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