Works from the Cy Twombly Foundation
Post Lot Text
This work will appear in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
Distinguished by its crisp, clean lines and the visual purity of the Ben-Day dots, Roy Lichtenstein’s master drawing Hot Dog is one of the most impressive works of the artist’s early career. Executed in 1964, this large-scale work is a superlative example of the way in which Lichtenstein distilled the visual cacophony of mass culture and consumerism of the postwar period into his own iconic Pop Art language. Drawn entirely by hand, Hot Dog celebrates an American icon, which, along with Coca-Cola, came to signify the promise of the American dream. Ubiquitous and consumed in the millions, the hot dog was the perfect symbol of American values in the boom years of the 1950s, and the instantly recognizable form of the iconic foodstuff proved to be the perfect subject matter for Lichtenstein’s new language of art. Lichtenstein took the archetypal silhouette of this familiar product, and using the signs and symbols of mass communication, turned the humble hot dog into high art, thus celebrating not only the commonality of the object itself, but also how the nature of the image retains its importance in the age of mechanical reproduction.
Measuring over four feet across, Hot Dog is among Lichtenstein’s largest works on paper. Set against a background of the artist’s hand-produced Ben-Day dots, Lichtenstein portrays the familiar outline of a succulent frankfurter placed in a plump, fluffy bread bun. Rendered entirely in India ink, the form of the hot dog (its shape, volume and surface, etc.) is produced by the skillful and elegant movement of Lichtenstein’s ink-laden brush as it moves across the surface of the paper. His chose of support for this work—delicate Japanese paper—is an unusual one for the artist as he usually preferred the thicker Arches paper. In addition, Lichtenstein’s decision to render this image with brush and ink is another example of this work’s rarity among his finished drawings, as most of them are completed in graphite pencil (along with lithographic crayon for the Ben-Day dots). Whatever his chosen material, although clearly mimicking the process of mechanical reproduction, delightful traces of the artist’s hand can still be seen throughout Hot Dog.
As noted by curator Isabelle Devraux, in the catalogue for her celebrated retrospective of Roy Lichtenstein’s early drawings at New York’s Morgan Library and Museum in 2010, the iconic hot dog represented for Lichtenstein the gap between conventions of representation and the actual objects. She quotes Lichtenstein himself as admitting that, “…a frankfurter looks nothing like the cartoon of it—there are no black lines, or dots or white highlights on the original. In the picture, the form becomes a purely decorative abstract object which everybody instantly recognizes as a frankfurter. It becomes a very exaggerated, a very compelling symbol that has almost nothing to do with the original. It has partly to do with the economics of printing, partly to do with the gross vision of the artist. It is very compelling for reasons that have nothing to do with art” (R. Lichtenstein, quoted by I. Dervaux (ed.)., Roy Lichtenstein: The Black and White Drawings, exh. cat, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York. 2010, p. 164).
Thomas Crow goes on to argue that Lichtenstein has followed a venerable tradition of each generation of artist adapting the conventions of visual communication, one that comes to its ultimate conclusion with Lichtenstein. “These printed symbols,” Crow maintains, “attain the perfection in the hands of commercial artists…Each generation of illustrators makes modifications and reinforcements of these symbols, when they become part of the vocabulary of all” (R. Lichtenstein, quoted by T. Crow, “For and Against the Funnies: Roy Lichtenstein’s Drawings in the Inception of Pop Art,” 1961-1962, in I. Dervaux (ed.)., Roy Lichtenstein:
The Black and White Drawings, exh. cat, , The Morgan Library & Museum, New York. 2010, p. 29).
Food provided a particularly fertile range of subject matter for Lichtenstein. As the American economy rebounded after the war, mass-produced and pre-packaged food became an increasingly important status symbol for the American consumer. Lichtenstein responded in 1962 with a series of works on paper that all featured food, beginning with Baked Potato (The Museum of Modern Art, New York), followed by Bread and Jam, 1963 (The Sonnabend Collection) and the all-American Cherry Pie. In 1964 he produced his first work featuring a hot dog, a subject which he would return to a number of times over the next year or so, producing a number of editioned pieces in porcelain enamel on steel.
For Roy Lichtenstein, the art of drawing was as important to his artistic output as his painting practice was. His perfectly rendered black-and-white drawings and exquisite studies were the places where he first expressed his unique visual language—a language that rewrote the rules of representation and became the foundation for one of the most important artistic movements of the 20th century. For such a prolific artist, though, the number of drawings within his oeuvre is remarkably small and from 1963 onwards most of Lichtenstein’s works on paper were either preparatory works for his larger paintings or one of a select number of black-and-white drawings that were independent finished pieces, such as the present work.
Drawing had played an important role in Lichtenstein’s early artistic education. He received a thorough and rigorous training under the auspices of the influential professor Hoyt L. Sherman at Ohio State University. In his book Drawing by Seeing, Sherman espoused a new approach to drawing: “Students must develop an ability to see familiar objects in terms of visual qualities, 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 of drawing was reinforced by his use of what Hoyt’s 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 an object’s structure, and not to become distracted by extraneous matters, such as unnecessary decoration.
The tradition of still life drawing is one which dates back many centuries, but, in a major step forward, Lichtenstein drew not directly from life, but from magazine and newspaper adverts that had already reduced the complexity of the original due to the reductive nature of the printing process. Either taken directly from an advertisement, such as Alka Seltzer, 1966 (The Art Institute of Chicago), to more stylized interpretations, such as the present work, his use of commercial imagery was inspired by the proliferation of the consumer culture that he saw around him during the America boom years of the 1950s and 1960s. Lichtenstein’s vocabulary emphasized the simple contour of line drawings, a move that although seen as inherently modern did have some historical precedence. As Bernice Rose, the Curator of the Department of Drawings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, points out, works such as Hot Dog created a new drawing system out of a synthesis of two apparent opposites; the essentially “graphic” drawing of Picasso, which bends, distorts, and at times parodies prior conventions of representation, and a more straightforward version of representational drawing taken from mass-produced printed sources.
One of only a select number of drawings from this important period of the artist’s development, Hot Dog provides an excellent opportunity to witness firsthand the technical and compositional skill of an artist who was able to turn a straightforward and utilitarian line drawing into an object of simple beauty and high art. It marks the triumphal culmination of the artist’s reductive practice of representing an image in terms of the symbolic language of its formal composition, drawn from the proliferation of advertising and graphic imagery that proliferated during the economic book of the postwar years. As Isabelle Deveraux notes, his finished drawings “represent the most original contribution of Pop Art to the history of drawing” (I. Deveraux, “Baked Potatoes, Hot Dogs and Girls’ Romances: Roy Lichtenstein’s Master Drawings,” Ibid., p. 15).