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Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)
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Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)

Purist Painting with Bottles

Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)
Purist Painting with Bottles
signed and dated 'roy Lichtenstein '75' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
74 x 54in. (188 x 137.1cm.)
Painted in 1975
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC724).
Acquired from the above by the father of the present owner in 1975 and thence by descent to the present owner.
New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein, November 1975.
Los Angeles, Kantor Gallery, Whole Lotta Pop, June-July 1995.
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Please note that the correct medium for this painting should read oil on canvas.

Lot Essay

This work will be included in the catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, New York.

"All my art is in some way about other art, even if the other art is cartoons" (Lichtenstein, quoted in J. Hendrickson, Roy Lichtenstein, Cologne 2000, frontispiece).

High art and Pop art collide dramatically in Purist Painting with Bottles, painted in 1975. This is one of fewer than a dozen paintings that Lichtenstein created, inspired by Purism. Here, Roy Lichtenstein has gleefully regurgitated the Purism of Le Corbusier, Ozenfant and even 1920s Picasso in a visual idiom more associated with printing, with pulp, with Pop. The hatching and the spots that articulate and define the various shadings, textures and perspectives within this still life lend the work a deliberately controlled appearance that hints at the world of manufacture, of machinery, a far cry from the high artistic tenets of the Purism that they mimic and mock. Purist Painting with Bottles ties into not only the world of the Purists, of the 1920s, but also that of New York during the 1970s. The ubiquitous cocktail glass was as associated with high-falutin' times during the 1970s as it had been in the pre-War years, especially in New York. Indeed, there is a hint that Lichtenstein's satirical eye has chosen emblems that tie in deliberately with the art scene of the age.

Breaking down the component parts of 'High Art' paintings and recreating them in his signature, print-like style, Lichtenstein was reversing completely the process that had launched him on his singular journey. In 1958, he created a small group of early works in which he began to experiment with cartoons as a visual theme. However, he was attacking this subject matter in a vigorous manner that clearly aped Abstract Expressionism. This small group of works on paper have a frenetic energy, a manic intensity of mark, that is completely subverted by their subject matter-- which remains resolutely the pure heart of the Disney universe. By taking the visual style of the gung-ho, respected, Clement Greenberg-backed Action Painters and linking them to a subject matter that was highly figurative and deliberately kitsch and childish, Lichtenstein was humorously puncturing all their posturing and machismo. In a sense, Purist Painting with Bottles performs a similar function, linking an art form whose original proponents believed was the height of progress and aestheticism and reproducing it in a manner reminiscent of comics and adverts. Lichtenstein appeared to have come full circle, although he had an inexhaustible ability to think his way out of the corners that his concise and coherent art created for him.

Lichtenstein's reincarnations of classic modern works of art in his own idiosyncratic style mingle irreverence with reverence. While he is clearly cocking a snook at the ideals and self-image of the artists from half a century earlier, he nonetheless shows his own respect for their achievements. Indeed, to some extent there is a Purist or even Cubist aesthetic in much of his cartoon-based work, in the deliberate manipulation and occasional ignoring of perspective. The removal of the cluttered forms that make up so much figurative art, their distillation into the restrained and the geometric, are processes that Lichtenstein shared with Purism, a fact that lends Purist Painting with Bottles an internal cohesion and logic greater than in many of his takes on other art movements. Indeed, with its removal of the painterly, with his insistence on a means of painting that removes the evidence of the artist's hand and with the introduction of the strict lines, uniform colours and regular means of hatching, Lichtenstein has taken Purism beyond its former limits. Elements of this painting resemble Mondrian more than they do Ozenfant or Léger, especially the squares and rectangles in the upper half.

For Lichtenstein's work to be recognised as related to comics or to advertisements, he needed to be able to condense the appearances of the various objects into an almost shorthand image reminiscent of the mass media the martini glass and bottles, as with the hotdogs and brushstrokes of his other works, become archetypes. Thus the methods of representation honed to perfection by the press and publishing industries and then highjacked by Lichtenstein echo the idealism of Purist painting, as well as many other aesthetically driven movements:
"That was the idea, in a way, of classical work: ideal figures of people and godlike people. Well, the same thing has been developed in cartoons. It's not called classical, it's called a cliché. Well, I'm interested in my work's redeveloping these classical ways, except that it's not classical, it's like a cartoon" (Lichtenstein, quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London 2002, pp. 226-27).

This pulp classicism not only links the visual world of the Purists, or of whatever other subject-matter Lichtenstein chooses, to the modern, capitalist universe that we now inhabit, but also explores the ambiguous realms of visual perception. The clear discrepancy between the image of the bottles and glasses, even in its imaginary Purist 'original' form but all the more so in its Pop incarnation, allows Lichtenstein to manipulate his viewer, to explore the process of seeing and of interpretation that lies at the heart of all art appreciation. Purist Painting with Bottles, in this context, occupies a similar realm to that of Magritte's Ceci n'est pas une pipe. The bottles and glass are clearly not the physical embodiment of bottles and glass. Nor, when one stands back and looks, can these simple lines and colours be seen objectively to resemble the objects that they claim to represent. And yet, through his deft use of a media-based clichée or classicism, Lichtenstein has tricked us into active interpretation, into filling the gaps ourselves. The exploration and manipulation of the shortcuts that our own minds can take in order to read a picture had long fascinated Lichtenstein, ever since his time at Ohio State University and in particular the lessons of Hoyt L. Sherman, whose lessons often revolved around profound investigations of perception and of representation.

The appropriative process of taking the original forms of Purism and reinventing them reflects the magpie-like tendencies of many of the so-called Pop artists. This is a process of reinterpretation as well, prompting the viewer to look both at the Purist Painting with Bottles and at the original inspiration Purism in a new light. As Lichtenstein himself explained,

"I am nominally copying, but I am really restating the copied thing in other terms. In doing that, the original acquires a totally different texture. It isn't thick or thin brushstrokes, it's dots and flat colours and unyielding lines. It seems to be antiart, but I don't think of it that way. I never thought it was Dada in that sense, though I thought it might look Dada" (Lichtenstein, quoted in L. Alloway, Lichtenstein, New York 1999, p. 106).

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