Clad in only a pale blue headband, the shapely contours of the heroine in Roy Lichtenstein’s masterful late painting Nude with Joyous Painting is a classic American beauty—a sumptuous marriage of soft, supple flesh and steamy pulp fiction pin-up. Painted in 1994, it is an iconic, tour-de-force of the last series of great nudes that the artist began in 1993 and continued until his death in 1997. The Nudes mark his majestic return to the comic-book heroines that propelled him to fame in the early 1960s and together, they rank among his most significant bodies of work. Culled from his prodigious archive of vintage comics, the Nudes marry Lichtenstein’s Pop Art sensibility with the most storied subject in the history of Western art—the female nude. “The later women paintings and nudes that Roy did are just absolutely gorgeous,” the artist Jeff Koons has affirmed, “I know the first one[s] have history, but in terms of beauty and engaging imagery--interesting, viral imagery---the women are fantastic” (J. Koons, quoted Lichtenstein Girls, exh. cat., Gagosian, New York, 2008, p. 16). Shortly after it was painted, Nude with Joyous Painting was first exhibited to the public at Leo Castelli’s SoHo gallery in November of 1994. There, it was included in a group of seven other large-scale nude paintings, of which at least two are now housed in major American public collections, including Nude at Vanity, 1994 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection) and Nude with Pyramid, 1994 (The Broad, Los Angeles).
Bathed in a scrim of delicate Ben-Day dots, Lichtenstein’s leading lady exudes sensuality. Her bright red lips, perfectly coiffed hair and lithe nude body represent the classical ideal. Here, the Pop Art master’s instinctive gift for creating a melodramatic mise-en-scene is in full effect. He crops out details of the original comic and pulls us in in closer, capturing a fraught moment bristling with suspense that rivals any Hitchcock thriller. Scaled to epic proportions, Lichtenstein’s slender beauty has leapt from the comic’s pages to reach Amazonian heights. In the subtle curve of her breast and the delicate bend of her bare arms, Lichtenstein delights in her trim, pert form. He immerses her in an array of Ben-Day dots ranging in density from a tight matrix of closely-clustered dots to a looser, more scattered supply. The same dot-pattern blankets the area rug and ottoman nearby, and extends upward into the painting of musical notes hanging on the wall. These dots read as “flesh” when overlaid upon the nude’s bare skin, and yet their placement does not always indicate roundness and depth. Instead, Lichtenstein freely experiments with the dots, clustering them in wide vertical bands that often bear no relation to the contours and depth of the figure’s nude form. Meanwhile, the domestic trappings of a bourgeois lifestyle linger nearby—holdovers from Lichtenstein’s Interiors series—and Lichtenstein’s own painting of musical notes, Unchained Melody (1994), hangs upon the wall. Turmoil invades even such an ordinary domestic scene, though, as our heroine is broken from her placid reverie by an unknown intrusion. In an interesting pictorial conceit, she glances backward toward the source, with her vantage point much the same as the viewer’s. The mystery surrounding her crackles with a palpable tension.
Rather than work from the live model as his predecessors had done, Lichtenstein’s nudes were based upon fully-clothed illustrations. In Nude with Joyous Painting, the artist’s source was a vintage DC Comics series called Girls’ Romance from August 1963, where a beautiful blonde falls for a dashing male lifeguard. Titled My Rival’s Secret, the stunning protagonist, named Gloria, is saved from turmoil by Bob, a handsome, sun-kissed hunk of a man. She’s then forced to compete for his affections with a pretty brunette rival. In the panel that Lichtenstein selected for the present work, Gloria is about to drown her sorrows in the ocean, thinking: “Although I tried to bury my sorrow...It doesn’t seem...that even the sea...is deep enough.” Gloria is saved at the last moment by the beefy Bob, who rushes toward her, yelling: “Don’t go in -- There’s a tremendous undertow!” The following few panels illustrate Gloria and Bob dancing arm-in-arm. Keeping the melodrama at a fever pitch, though, Gloria’s rival soon approaches Bob, saying, “How about your sister ‘cutting in,’ Gloria? It’s not fair to keep the ‘king of the sea’ all to yourself!”
Together, as a series, the Nudes were the first body of work that Lichtenstein undertook following his exhaustive Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum retrospective in New York in 1993. They have been described as “formally groundbreaking” by the curator of Lichtenstein’s 2012 retrospective organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and Tate Modern, Sheena Wagstaff, who described them as “monumental celebrations of domesticated eroticism” (S. Wagstaff, “Late Nudes,” Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 2012, p. 97). Taken as a group, the Nudes comprise only about twenty large-scale paintings, spanning the years 1993 to 1997. Each painting is based upon a scantily-clad comic-book heroine, and often situated in domestic interiors filled with the trappings of a simple, bourgeois life, Lichtenstein’s epic nudes are enlarged to monumental proportions, stripped bare, and inventively remixed. They lie around, read books or gaze into mirrors—either alone or in pairs. Their bodies sleek and trim, they’re always nude but sometimes wear pearls, and their hair is always perfectly coiffed. "It's kind of amusing that you just paint them and leave the clothes off and it means something different. It's more riveting,” Lichtenstein has observed (R. Lichtenstein quoted in R. Enright, "Pop Goes the Tradition," Border Crossings, Vol.13, No.3, August 1994, p.27).
A painting fraught with melodrama, Nude with Joyous Painting rivals that of even the earlier 1960s comic-book paintings that preceded it, coming to stand at a crucial moment in Lichtenstein’s career. Its formal structure, visual simplicity and zoomed-in, close-up cropping is very much aligned with the earlier ’60 Girl paintings. So, too, was Lichtenstein’s procedure for devising the composition, and he proceeded with the work in much the same manner as he had done thirty-five years earlier. He searched through the stacks of comic books, magazines and newspaper illustrations to find compelling images that suited his purpose, before translating them on a vast scale. “He specifically picked images and cartoons that had a lot of emotional charge--the archetypal idea of the woman disappointed by love, the war hero in the heat of a battle. These are typically American; and this is a typically American way of glorifying a subject” (D. Lichtenstein, Lichtenstein Girls, op. cit., p 10).
One important element differentiates the later Nudes from their ‘60s predecessors however. As the curator Avis Berman has observed, their handsome leading man is notably absent. "The 1990s nudes take pleasure in their own company, without the slightest hint of needing or missing a man,” Berman explained. “In contrast to Lichtenstein's original romance-comic pictures, this world flourishes exuberantly without men or engagement rings or kisses” (A. Berman, "'Joy and Bravura and Irreverence': Roy Lichtenstein and Images of Women," in Roy Lichtenstein—Classic of the New, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Bregenz, Vienna, 2005, p. 143). Some scholars have even suggested that Lichtenstein himself was the off-screen leading man to the pert young nudes that came to dominate so much of his attention in those last few years, “…the exclusion of any male presence in these scenes, as opposed to earlier, more fully narrative paintings in which men and women interact, such as The Kiss...suggests that ‘the object of these figures’ attentions...is none other than Lichtenstein himself” (H. Cooper, “On The Dot,” Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, op. cit., p. 32).
In rendering the classic nude, Lichtenstein joins in the dialogue with the great Modernist masters of the twentieth century, who took as their subject the legendary motif of the female form. Of particular interest to Lichtenstein were Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne. Lichtenstein famously owned over sixty books on Picasso and nearly twenty-five on Matisse. In countless paintings and drawings, he wrestled with the legacy of both artists, particularly in the 1970s when he devoted several series to the major “isms” of Modern art ranging from Cubism, Purism, Surrealism and Expressionism. The lithe forms of Matisse’s Danse (I), 1909, which Lichtenstein would have undoubtedly seen at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, reflect both the formal and lyrical qualities that the American artist addressed in the present work. “I’ve always been interested in Matisse but maybe a little more interested in Picasso. But they are both overwhelming influences on everyone, really. Whether one tries to be like them or tries not to be like them, they’re always there as presences to be dealt with. They’re just too formidable to have no interest. I think that somebody who pretends he’s not interested is not interested in art” (R. Lichtenstein, “A Review of My Work Since 1961,” in G. Bader, Hall of Mirrors: Roy Lichtenstein and the Face of Painting in the 1960s, New York, 2009, p.55).
Just months before Nude with Joyous Painting was unveiled at Leo Castelli Gallery, Lichtenstein went to see Picasso and the Weeping Women: The Years of Marie-Therese Walter and Dora Maar that premiered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibit featured over eighty works—drawings, paintings and sculpture—all executed between 1920 and 1941. They illustrate the two divergent views of Picasso’s French lover, model and mother of his child, Marie-Therese Walter, and Dora Maar, the photographer, painter and poet that Picasso met toward the end of 1935 and began a tumultuous, nine-year long affair. Of course, the two women were famously opposed to each other’s existence, and in Picasso’s portraits Walter appears as blonde, sunny and bright, as in Le Rêve (1932), in contrast to his darker portrayal of Dora Maar, whom Picasso painted as the tortured “weeping woman.” The sheer variety of Picasso’s technique is staggering to behold, as he effortlessly switched between modes—the Cubist-derived Weeping Women with their striking, lurid palette is diametrically opposed to the more subdued, almost “classical” portraits that time and again reveal Picasso’s unrivaled skill as a draftsman. Critics have recently speculated that these paintings played a formative role on Lichtenstein’s Nudes, which is tempting to consider.
Picasso and Matisse were Lichtenstein's most venerated artistic predecessors; he applied his comic style to ersatz versions of their work on many occasions throughout his career. In Nude with Joyous Painting, Lichtenstein manages to eke out two separate and wholly opposed conditions from the same Ben-Day dot technique, an aspect that only benefits from his constant and continuous dialogue with Picasso, Matisse and the great Modernist masters. His relentless experimentation and refinement in the thirty-five years since his comic-book heroines first appeared is staggering to consider. In painting the female nude, he joins in a legion of artists stretching back two millennia that wrestled with rendering the complexities of the female form in all its fleshy complexity.
In what has typically been so highly-prized by artists of the Western canon—the realistic portrayal of the softness and roundness of the female form in all its sensuous detail—Lichtenstein instead employs an abstract design where the closely-clustered dots don’t provide fullness or depth. Several critics have noticed this important visual device, which they see as a sly commentary on the prototypical technique for three-dimensional modeling known as chiaroscuro. Indeed, the bands of Ben-Day dots that bathe the figure’s bare skin in Nude with Joyous Painting are put to a new purpose. Rather than cluster together in dense arrangements to connote three-dimensional modeling and shadow—as they had typically been used in the halftone printing process of comic-books and in his own 60s paintings—the artist freely experiments with the dots, arranging them in wide vertical bands that often bear no relation to the contours and depth of the figure’s body. In certain areas, the tightly-clustered dots seem to denote shadow, such as the side of the heroine’s face and beneath her chin, but elsewhere, they can be found in places that should be brightly-lit and therefore devoid of shadow, for instance along her lower arm. In this way, the illustration snaps back and forth between realistic, three-dimensional representation and an overall flat decorative pattern.
Whereas the earlier ‘60s paintings employed only a select few potent primary colors—namely red, yellow and black—the later Nudes maintained a staggering array of nearly fifty colors that reveal Lichtenstein’s mastery as a brilliant colorist. In the present work, his selection went through a rigorous process that began with a simple pencil sketch based on the Girls’ Romance panel, where the music painting was initially given a bright yellow frame. The next step in the process was a larger collage, where he changed the frame to light blue and added a bright yellow strip of streaming sunlight along its right edge. In the final painting, Lichtenstein added three segments of pale yellow to highlight the figure’s skin, and added a single, green music note to the painting. He also added two sections of vertical crosshatching along the upper and lower registers.
Lichtenstein’s paintings were always infused with irreverence and wit. In many instances, he even parodied his own paintings. Such is the case in Nude with a Joyous Painting, where the musical notes not only reference another painting of 1994, Unchained Melody, but also his own love of music. “Roy loved music and the studio was always filled with the sounds he loved. Bach and bebop were his favorites. … And wouldn’t you know, those musical notes found their way into his paintings” (D Lichtenstein, Roy Lichtenstein: Interiors, New York, 2002, p. 21).
On the occasion of Lichtenstein’s solo show at Leo Castelli in late 1994—in what proved to be one of his last exhibits before his untimely death in 1997—the New York Daily News declared, with tongue planted firmly in cheek: “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. Yep, nudes—the least politically acceptable subject he could take up today.” Indeed, Lichtenstein’s last series of Nudes rank among his greatest, most fascinating body of work. As an artist who ceaselessly innovated whilst staying true to his signature style, Lichtenstein’s Nudes reveal ingenious new formal devices—especially his new form of Ben-Day dots, a rich array of new color and “quoting” of previous work. More than just an erotic pin-up, they are rich with art historical references and cleverly-veiled allusions to the act of looking itself.