This work will appear in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
Painted at the height of his career, Roy Lichtenstein’s Nurse is a dazzling masterpiece—a celebration of the bold new imagery that changed the direction of art. The subject of this painting stands alongside Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy as one of a distinguished group of icons who take their place in the history of figurative painting. Initially titled Frightenedness, the protagonist symbolizes her profession, however when seen through Lichtenstein’s prism, her anxious gaze and hand raised nervously upwards towards her face displays a palpable sense of drama that infuses the narrative with a sense of fear and foreboding. No words are spoken, no context is given—yet the artist’s exceptional understanding of the language of visual communication is able to set the stage for a complex drama that is about to play out before us. Nurse comes with the distinguished provenance of having been in some of the most important collections of Pop Art including both the legendary Kraushar Collection in New York and the influential collection of Karl Ströher in Germany. Having also been selected for inclusion in the artist’s seminal early retrospectives, including those organized by the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin in 1969 and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York the same year, the painting has come to be regarded as a cornerstone of the artist’s career.
The subject of Nurse is a quintessential Lichtenstein heroine. His signature Ben-Day dots, her strong features and flawless skin mark her out as a striking woman. Her imposing uniform—as defined by the striped fabric of her dress, the stiff white collar and her starched white hat—clearly indicate that she is a member of the nursing profession. Yet her piercing blue eyes, bottle blond hair, and luscious red lips also lend the work a frisson of latent sexuality—less heavenly angel and more femme fatale. Thus, in addition to being a member of the caring profession, the nurse also becomes one of the ultimate male sexual fantasies, an image of immense complexity and human drama.
Lichtenstein arrived at his now legendary depictions of women after sojourns into Cubism and Abstract Expressionism during the 1940s and 1950s. In 1961, he finally abandoned his colorful abstractions with Girl with Ball (Museum of Modern Art), a striking image of a beach belle inspired by an advertisement for the Mount Airy Lodge in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. The clarity of line and similarities to the aesthetic of the mass produced image was in stark contrast to what had previously been acknowledged as art. His first quintessential Girl painting is widely considered to be another 1961 work called The Engagement Ring, a straight forward appropriation of a comic strip in the Chicago Tribune. The origins of the artist’s signature style can clearly be seen here but reach new heights of sophistication with a 1962 painting called, appropriately enough, Masterpiece. This wry comment on the commodification of the New York art market contains all the elements that mark out what would become Lichtenstein’s mature style. Yet, with Nurse, he took this visual narrative to the ultimate level, removing all the extraneous visual material and forcing his heroine to fill the entire picture plane—leaving only the visual elements contained within to convey the narrative.
Although inspired by the comic books of the early 1960s, Lichtenstein’s work is not just a mere copy. If we refer back to the original source image for this particular painting we can see that the original comic book artist has packed the cell with all sorts of visual signs and codes to help us follow the narrative. Not only has the cartoonist included several speech bubbles, he has also placed the figure in the nurses’ break room eavesdropping on a conversation in the next room. Her beau, Dr. Bob Sanders, is overheard talking to her love rival—roommate Cora. “But she told me you were sick!” Bob exclaims, “That she had to take your place.” Then a startled Cora replies, “She wanted an excuse so she lied! I’ve never felt better in my life!” Thus, the author of the original comic strip provides us with all the verbal and non-verbal cues that we need to understand the unfolding drama and make sense of what appears before us. Yet, Lichtenstein’s iteration—devoid of all this narrative clutter—is arguably more dramatic and engrossing.
The way Lichtenstein is able to convey so much through so limited means is due to his systematic understanding of how visual communication has developed in the age of mass media. Much of his thinking was developed under the tutelage of Hoyt L. Sherman, whom he studied under at Ohio State University in the 1940s. In his influential book Drawing by Seeing, Sherman espoused a new approach to conveying narrative, “Students must develop an ability to see familiar objects in terms of visual qualities,” he wrote, “and they must develop this ability to the degree that old associations with such objects will have only a secondary or a submerged role during the seeing-and-drawing act” (H. L. Sherman, quoted by B. Rose, The Drawings of Roy Lichtenstein, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1987, p. 29). This theory was reinforced by Sherman’s use of what he called his ‘flash room’—a darkened room where images of objects were briefly flashed onto a screen for the students to copy. Teaching drawing in this manner proved to be extremely influential for Lichtenstein as it forced him to focus his attention on the most important visual aspects of the objects structure, and not to become distracted by extraneous matters such as unnecessary decoration.
Taking his lead from the mass media comic books found at every supermarket and drug store, Lichtenstein set about applying Hoyt’s teaching to the realm of high art. This simplified style became hugely important for Lichtenstein as he identified the printed image as being identical to the picture plane, which he has filled edge to edge with an enlarged and simplified representation, thereby emphasizing the literal characteristic of painting as a flat surface.
This undercutting of illusionism is typical of American art of the sixties, both abstract and Pop. Lichtenstein’s pictorial strategy complicates formalist readings but he was able to reconcile representation with abstraction by filtering his stylized imagery through reproduction and replication. As comics already exist as graphic abstractions of nature, Lichtenstein’s quotations are as much about the means of representation as the subject they represent. Or as Marshall McLuhan asserted the same year Nurse was painted: ‘The medium is the message.’ The subject of this painting is therefore not just the girl depicted but also the method of communication.
The richness of this particular canvas is due in large part to this verdant field of Ben-Day dots, individually stenciled by hand, which Lichtenstein uses to build up his fertile surface. Despite their apparent simplicity Lichtenstein’s paintings are far more technically demanding than it may seem at first glance. His work was described by the critic Hal Foster as the “handmade readymade”: not industrially mechanized, but blending careful techniques of handwork (drawing, tracing, painting, emphasizing brushstroke, line, and Ben-Day dot) with the aesthetics of reproduction. “It is not art trouvé but art retrouvé: refashioned, recovered, reframed. And in the process, the simplistic distinctions between making and manufacturing begin to dissolve” (S. Churchwell, ‘Roy Lichtenstein: From heresy to visionary,’ The Guardian, February 23, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/feb/23/roy-lichtenstein-heresy-to-visionary [accessed October 6, 2015]). Although aping what he saw in the real world, Lichtenstein was clear that his lines and dots were not trying to recreate reality, and much like the tenets of the critic Clement Greenberg and his Abstract Expressionism forebears, they should just be celebrated for their visual properties alone. “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).
In addition to its visual supremacy and technical superiority, Nurse is distinguished by its illustrious provenance, having been owned by some of the most important and influential collectors in the history of Pop. It was initially acquired by Leon Kraushar, an advertising executive and legendary collector who—during an intense period in the early 1960s—amassed one of the greatest collections of Pop Art ever assembled. Kraushar and his wife acquired many early works by the likes of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Among his early purchases were the now legendary Red Jackie, Green Liz and Orange Marilyn, all of which were displayed alongside Nurse in bedroom of Kraushar’s suburban Long Island home.
Along with Robert and Ethel Scull, the Kraushars were instrumental in helping to define and nurture this nascent art movement. In his typically brash, unfiltered style, Kraushar enthused that, “Pop art is the art of today, and tomorrow, and all the future. All that other stuff—it’s old, it’s antique. Renoir? I hate him. Bedroom pictures. It’s all same. It’s the same with the Abstract Expressionists, all of them. Decoration. There’s no satire, there’s no today, there’s no fun. That other art is for old ladies, all those people who go to auctions—it’s dead. There isn’t any art except right here. I got rid of all those second-raters. Somebody else can have them” (L. Kraushar, quoted by R. Polsky, ‘Art market Guide 2003,’ http://www.artnet.com/Magazine/features/polsky/polsky2-4-03.asp [accessed October 5, 2015]). Kraushar became an ardent fan of Lichtenstein’s work, and the first example of Pop Art that he acquired was the artist’s early painting, Sponge II, 1962. Ivan Karp who, while acting as Leo Castelli’s right-hand man, also played an important role in the history of Pop, recalled that “Kraushar was one of those individuals who was born with a chemical compound in their head that allowed him to see with great perception. There are certain people who might be beasts and monsters, but somehow they get it—they have an uncanny eye for art” (I. Karp, quoted by R. Polsky, ibid.).
Following Kraushar’s death in 1967, his widow put the entire collection of more than sixty works up for sale with a price tag of $600,000. Thus, Nurse was acquired by Karl Ströher, a German industrialist whose family owned the Wella hair-care brand. Ströher had begun his collection by focusing on nineteenth century drawings that he had purchased before the war, but in the 1950s he began to concentrate his acquisitions more on contemporary art. In 1966 he made his first trip to the United States and met with artists such as Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein. These meetings cemented his interest in Pop which remained his focus for the rest of his life. After his death, Ströher left most of the Pop works in his collection to the city of Frankfurt where they became the core of the permanent collection of the Museum für Moderne Kunst. His enthusiasm for Pop, along with the American-style prosperity enjoyed by the western European nations after the Second World War, did much to enhance the movement’s appeal in Europe and thus ensure its dominance around the world. Ultimately, Lichtenstein’s Nurse was not one of the works from Ströher’s collection that was destined for the museum in Frankfurt, instead it was acquired by another legendary Pop collector, the American collector Peter Brant in 1989. Thus, this painting’s storied history has mirrored the wider narrative of Pop, and in doing so it has become an archetypal ambassador for the development of post-war art as a whole.
The protagonist in Lichtenstein’s Nurse is a complex character. Her anxious appearance suggests she is not necessarily the traditional figure of the Good Samaritan, the chaste care giver who puts the welfare of her patients before her own. Here, with her furrowed brow and nervous manner, the artist transforms her in an altogether more emotive figure. With her white starched uniform she is instantly recognizable as a nurse, yet her obvious state of distress conveys a disturbing sense of uneasiness that is a far cry from the romantic scenarios of the pulp fiction books from which Lichtenstein takes his source material. In these books, the nurse is often a virtuous figure whose quest for true love is a perfect counterpoint to the day-to-day melodrama of hospital life. But here, he has transformed her into a much more complex figure whose demeanor engenders uneasiness instead of lust and desire. Lichtenstein has managed to create an image of a nurse that uncomfortably straddles the domains of sexual fantasy and schlock-horror and in doing so has made it appear all the more raw, and more powerfully subversive than the harmless innocence of its original context. Richard Prince, a more contemporary artist who has drawn on the long running fascination with the image of the nurse in popular culture, insists that this dichotomy is what make the nurse such fascinating subject matter. “Some people say the nurse paintings are all about desire,” he said in a conversation about his own nurse paintings with fellow artist Damien Hirst, “but isn’t that more to do with their proximity to life and death? Isn’t that why we find nurses sexy—because they embody this ultimate contradiction? You’re the artist, you can tell me. As kids we are interested in sex and death because we can never imagine either one ever happening to us” (R. Prince, quoted in “A Conversation” in Damien Hirst: Requiem II, 2009).
The central character in Lichtenstein’s Nurse is also very much a product of her time. Unlike today’s highly qualified nursing professionals who often take on much of the treatment and diagnostic duties that were previously reserved strictly for doctors, Lichtenstein’s Nurse is a product of the 1950s. The nurses of that era were much more restricted in their duties, effectively only employed as care assistants to make their patients as comfortable as possible and assist the doctors in their medical duties. As such they often became the object of much male attention—from the perceived innocence of the Dr. Kildare style hospital romance to the slightly more salacious full-blown male fantasy. Here, by injecting this typecast character with a sense of drama and intrigue, Lichtenstein elevates her to become a much more central protagonist than would normally have been portrayed in popular culture.
Lichtenstein has seized on this theme to mark out his unique position in the pantheon of artists who dealt with female figure—a mainstay of art history. He always overtly stated his intention that he was making art about art, and in the case of his paintings (such as the present example) his subject matter aligned, and arguably overrode, his formal theories. With Nurse, Lichtenstein contributes to this legacy in his inimitable and ironic fashion. This subject matter enabled him to make a knowing and witty nod to art historical precedents and the result is a magnificent work that exemplifies the new approaches to visual practice in the post-modern era.