Executed in 1962, this work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
Cherry Pie is an important early example of the unique visual iconography that has come to embody Roy Lichtenstein's rich career. Composed with his signature use of Benday dots and bold outlines, Lichtenstein renders the image of the pie with confident authority, a clear demonstration of the artist's unique sense of pictorial completeness that became the main constituent of his mature art. In Cherry Pie, Lichtenstein pays homage Americana. From the formal qualities of his newly acquired artistic style to the painting's subject matter, the work is an unfettered examination of American life and the contradictory social messages inherent in American culture at the time. Lichtenstein and his fellow Pop artists sought to suspend the art historical norms that had dominated for centuries - unique versus reproduced, original versus copy and high art versus mass culture - and replace them with a new visual language. Relishing this challenge, Lichtenstein first began subverting the style that he borrowed from comic-books that frequented grocery store checkouts. His crisp, stencil-like pictures formed a stark contrast with the deliberately, painterly, and thus revered, creations of his predecessors. The entire notion of mark-making was flagrantly and joyously undermined in Lichtenstein's works, they became "pseudo-gestural", depictions of chance effects and vigorous brushstrokes that were in reality highly controlled.
The source image for Cherry Pie comes from the pages of a Dick Tracy comic book. In it the eponymous hero is being shown a selection of art works. One of the paintings, titled Piece, is a canvas depicting a slice of pie. On closer examination, Dick Tracy realizes that the painting is visual trick, a tromp l'oeil in which the top crust of pie is actually a separate piece of canvas that lifts up. By executing this work in his comic-book style Lichtenstein performs his own tromp l'oeil of sorts, using high-art techniques to replicate the style of mass-production.
This visual slight-of-hand is central to much of Lichtenstein's best work, of which Cherry Pie is a superb example. Superficially, the uncomplicated aesthetics of the bountiful slice of fruit pie, bursting with its ripe cherry filling could be regarded simply as an artistic appropriation of the rapidly expanding mass-market media. But, by rendering the object in a patriotic color-scheme of red, white and blue, Lichtenstein adds a further dimension to the work. This wholesome image of Americana could have been taken straight from the pages of Life magazine, of an America where dutiful housewives spent their days baking homemade pies to be consumed by their adoring families. But just as Jasper Johns' Flag uses an emblematic American motif to offer a critique of American society, Lichtenstein's works can also be read as having a deep-seated duality that challenges their seemingly straight-forward outward appearance.
Just like the pie in the original Dick Tracy cartoon, lifting the surface of Lichtenstein's Cherry Pie reveals an unexpected interior. Outwardly, the work purports to show a quintessential symbol of American values, a homemade pie; individual and unique and packed with wholesome fruit. But by the early 1960s American society, along with their eating habits, were changing. A rapid growth in the industrialization of food, mass produced and ready to eat, was part of the post-war consumer boom. American society was changing and the outwardly simple image of Cherry Pie reflects Lichtenstein's deeper reflections on a deeper set of social changes.
It was certainly true that Lichtenstein was also attacking the art world and the received notions of what should and should not constitute art. Most of his artistic schooling had been dominated by the then prevailing Abstract Expressionism, and Lichtenstein's controlled reproduction of found images jarred with that in almost every way. He essentially removed any evidence of the artist from his work. The economy of line with which Cherry Pie has been rendered appears as some sort of assault on Abstract Expressionism. However, it was not only that movement that Lichtenstein targeted, but the whole snobbery of aesthetics. In enshrining this work in oils, Lichtenstein essentially provided an apotheosis for an image created commercially.
'I'm interested in the kind of image in the same way that one would develop a classical form, an ideal head for instance. Some people don't really believe in this any more, but 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 clich©e. Well, I'm interested in my work's redeveloping these classical ways, except that it's not classical, it's like a cartoon' (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2002, p. 226).
Just as important to Lichtenstein as the subject matter was the process by which it was rendered. As the artist himself stated in 1995, 'My use of evenly repeated dots and diagonal lines and uninflected color areas suggest that my work is right where it is, definitely not a window into the world. The enlargement of these comic book devices make obvious that we take for reality configurations that are very abstract. I do this partly because I don't think the importance of the art has anything to do with the importance of the subject matter. I think importance resides more in the unity of the composition and in the inventiveness of perception' (quoted in Roy Lichtenstein Beginning to End, Fundacin Juan March, Madrid, 2007, p. 128).
Roy Lichtenstein's early canvases, such as Cherry Pie, are among his most significant works. Stylistically innovative it acts as a mirror reflecting back the changing values of the society which sparked its creation. A pioneer of Pop art, one of Lichtenstein's greatest legacies is beginning the dismantling of the traditional boundaries between high and low art. In doing so, he raised questions about not only the values of art in modern society but also he questions the wider values of that society as well.