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Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)

Untitled Composition

Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)
Untitled Composition
signed and dated 'rf Lichtenstein '78' (on the reverse)
oil and magna on canvas
84 x 120 in. (213.4 x 305 cm.)
Painted in 1978.
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Private collection, New York
Private collection, Florida
Vivian Horan Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1989
Washington D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art, The 36th Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting: Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg, February-April 1979.
Sale Room Notice
Please note that Christie's guarantee of this lot has been fully financed by a third party who is bidding on this lot. The third party, who may or may not have knowledge of the reserves, will receive a financing fee from Christie's, whether or not they are the successful bidder.

Lot Essay

Executed in 1978, this work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.

Untitled Composition is one of Roy Lichtenstein's monumental and most significant works of the 1970s, consisting of an exhilarating blend of wit and symbols combined with his iconic style and deep appreciation of art history to generate a work that is both visually and intellectually challenging.

Part of his Surrealist series, Untitled Composition is one of eight mural-sized works from the series he began in 1977 and completed eighteen months later. Lichtenstein's energetic adoption of Surrealism might appear odd for an artist, the majority of whose work up to this point had been characterized by the rationality and formal order of comic strips, but it can be traced back to the earliest stages of his career.

During his graduate studies at art school he became interested in the psychology of perception and the problems of pictorial representation and was heavily influenced by the work of Picasso, Klee and Miró. He later became fascinated by the distinctions between so-called high and low art and this led him to produce several bodies of work in which he combined his own unique style with ideas he appropriated from some of the 20th century's greatest artists. Of these, his Surrealist series is certainly regarded as the most successful. In part, it played to the direct connection that Lichtenstein felt between his own ideas and theirs, particularly their shared interest in the use and interpretation of symbols. It also allowed him to set up the visual wit and puns he so enjoyed and allowed him the freedom to make full use of his colorful imagination.

Lichtenstein splits Untitled Composition into two halves, with a distinct male and female side. The left part of the canvas is dominated by the sultry profile of a young woman with flowing, long blond hair and luscious red lips. This clearly cubist portrayal of a woman, with half her face in profile combined with the piercing eye staring straight out at us, pays homage to one of Lichtenstein's biggest heroes, Pablo Picasso. His influence is felt throughout the work, with its disregard for traditional perspective and its reliance on the radical re-structuring of the way art transmits its meaning. Picasso's influence on Lichtenstein cannot be underestimated. When interviewed in 1997 he admitted that he probably wasn't entirely free of it. 'Picassco's always been such a huge influence that I thought when I started the cartoon paintings that I was getting away from Picasso...I don't think that I'm over his influence...' (R. Lichtenstein, quoted by D. Sylvester in Lichtenstein: All about Art, London, 2003, p. 58).

Never afraid to introduce a playful tone to his work, Lichtenstein sets up a visual "clash of the titans" between Picasso and the master of Surrealism, René Magritte. The alluring eye, which stares out from the left section of the canvas, is a clear nod to Magritte's The False Mirror (1928). Long regarded as one of the high points of the movement, it portrays the human eye as the link between the subconscious and conscious world. By taking this motif and superimposing it on top of the "Picasso face," Lichtenstein directly pits Cubism and Surrealism against each other. Homage to several other twentieth century masters are also included with references to Léger's ghost-like figures and the balustrade from Braque's Baluster et Crane.

In addition, the painting is packed with visual references to Lichtenstein's own catalogue of past works. His Sunrise series from 1965 is represented by the radiant sun canvas in the right section of the painting, behind this can be found his folding chair which first appeared in his interior Still Life series from 1976. The abstract image in the lower right of the left half of the canvas relates to his Abstraction paintings from 1975. Other images include elements of his Landscape paintings and the architectural features from his Entablature series from the early 1970s.

While the "female" half of the painting bares more than a passing resemblance to the idealized image of women that Lichtenstein used as the basis for many of his romantic comic-book images, the iconology of the "male" side could be read as very much of a self portrait of Lichtenstein himself. He takes the same motifs from his Self-Portrait (1978) to examine the idea of himself represented as a cipher of his own identity. The stitching on the collar of the t-shirt matches exactly the stitching from his earlier Self-Portrait, but this time the mirror is moved to expose a highly stylized figure taken from Fernand Léger. By consciously using one of Léger's ghost-like forms to represent himself, he is able to engage in an indirect form of critical self-assessment, but in order to reinforce the point that he is the artist in question, Lichtenstein includes one of his iconic Sunset pictures from the 1960s.

The central divide that separates the male and female halves of the canvas also helps to construct many of the visual jokes that Lichtenstein peppers throughout this work. The female's alluring, long blond hair turns into fiery flames as it crosses the center of the canvas and encroaches into the male figure's personal space, a possible allusion being drawn to the flame of a beautiful woman. The hand missing from the empty tuxedo sleeve in the center of the "male half" is mirrored by a three-fingered hand in the left half.

Lichtenstein is not the first artist to borrow ideas from those that had been before him, but as a member of the Pop Art generation his approach to appropriation is a very modern one. He takes elements in the general vocabulary of art that went with his way of working and he restates the work of other artists in his own terms. '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. Lichtenstien, quoted in Mural with Blue Brushstroke, New York, 1987, p. 42).

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