‘Roy Lichtenstein’s still lifes of the 1970s and early 1980s represent not only a new direction in the work of this Pop master and many of his colleagues at this time, but also an inventive transformation of the genre by a whole generation of artists’ (J. Wilmerding, ‘Roy Lichtenstein’s Still Lifes: Conversations with Art History’, in Roy Lichtenstein: Still Lifes, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2010, p. 9).
‘There is a sense in which all of Lichtenstein’s work could be classified as still life: since he is quoting material, usually printed, he is dealing with things of daily use’ (L. Alloway, Roy Lichtenstein, New York 1983, p. 85).
‘[The still life] presents the most consistent imagistic subject theme for Lichtenstein since his cartoon Pop paintings’ (J. Cowart, ‘Decisive Appearances: The Paintings’, in Roy Lichtenstein 1970-1980, exh. cat., St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, 1981, p. 51).
With its bold palette, impeccable geometries and finely-calibrated composition, Roy Lichtenstein’s Apples, Grapes, Grapefruit stems from the important series of still life paintings that the artist produced between 1972 and 1974. With its rigorous nature morte composition transfigured through Lichtenstein’s immaculate Pop lens, the work is a superb demonstration of the artist’s dialogue with art historical tradition. Representing a definitive body of work within one of Lichtenstein’s most exploratory decades, his still life paintings departed from the distinctive cartoon imagery that had brought about his rise to fame during the 1960s. Though this earlier period had seen Lichtenstein turn to the artistic canon on numerous occasions, paying homage to Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne among others, his output during the 1970s held a mirror up to entire genres, styles and movements. In choosing to engage the venerated tradition of still life painting, Lichtenstein broadened the scope of his historical purview, appropriating not only well-known Cubist and Purist versions of the genre but also re-energising the vast body of still life compositions by nineteenth-century American painters such as Raphaelle Peale and John Frederick Peto. Deepening and refining his art historical enquiries, Lichtenstein found in still life painting an uncanny foil for his own aesthetic aims: as an artist who conceived of his works as objects in their own right, the very notion of still life resonated with his principles of replicating, mirroring and distilling. Functioning as a conceptual metaphor of sorts for his practice, Lichtenstein’s engagement with still life painting represents one of the most sophisticated strands of his output. Acquired by Lord and Lady Jacobs directly after its creation, and held in their collection ever since, Apples, Grapes, Grapefruit sits alongside important works from this period, including Still Life with Crystal Bowl, 1973 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) and Still Life with Goldfish, 1974 (Philadelphia Museum of Art).
By the time Apples, Grapes, Grapefruit was painted, Lichtenstein had firmly established himself as one of the leading figures of the Pop Art movement. During the previous decade, he had forged an entirely new approach to image-making, deploying a system of Ben Day-style dots to recreate subject matter drawn from comic books, advertising, soap operas and teen romance novels. By deliberately and painstakingly replicating the aesthetic of commercial printing, Lichtenstein developed a language through which he was able to interrogate the artifice of visual representation. At times, this vernacular was transplanted onto art historical subjects: alongside his engagement with Impressionist and Modern masters, Lichtenstein produced homages to Art Deco in his Modern series, to Greek and Egyptian architecture in Pyramids and Temple of Apollo, to Jasper Johns and Piet Mondrian with his Stretcher Frames and aped the painterly gestures of Abstract Expressionism with his first Brushstroke series of 1965 - 1966. However, during the early 1970s, Lichtenstein’s practice took a more overtly conceptual turn: the series of Mirrors that directly predates the still life paintings of 1972 - 1974 took a step back from specific reference to artists and paintings of the past, choosing instead to engage with an object that embodies the basic act of visual perception. By reflecting nothing except a faceless sea of Ben Day dots, the Mirrors came to stand as ciphers for Lichtenstein’s own practice: a practice which imposed a visual filter on everything that crossed its path. Following on from this series of works, the still life paintings function along similar lines: by engaging with a genre built upon the idea of mirroring, Lichtenstein’s object is no longer the history of art but rather the mechanics of his own practice. As Lawrence Alloway affirmed, ‘there is a sense in which all of Lichtenstein’s work could be classified as still life: since he is quoting material, usually printed, he is dealing with things of daily use’ (L. Alloway, Roy Lichtenstein, New York 1983, p. 85).
Throughout his career, Lichtenstein’s dialogues with art history were grounded in his own close studies of its movements and themes. He avidly devoured art books, often marking particular examples that were of interest to him, and was well acquainted with the permanent collections of the major New York museums. His engagement with still life painting places him within one of art history’s most enduring traditions: stretching back to Roman and Byzantine eras, still life gained currency during the Baroque period and flourished within seventeenth-century Dutch schools of painting. It was in nineteenth-century America, however, that prescriptions for the genre first began to change: whilst it had previously been subordinated by historical and religious subject matter, as well as landscape and portrait painting, it was now enshrined as a rigorous formal exercise, a deft compositional balancing act that transcended autobiographical and sentimental implications. In the geometric tabletop compositions that dominate Lichtenstein’s still lifes of the early 1970s, we can see the influence of Raphaelle Peale, whose serialised arrangements of fruit and other objects paved the way for Modernist appropriations of the genre, in particular Cézanne’s iconic arrangements of apples. Comparisons have also been drawn with the trompe l’oeil painters of this period, including John Haberle, William Michael Harnett and John Frederick Peto, whose purposefully flattened compositions had an important impact on the two-dimensional appearance of Lichtenstein’s still lifes. Though the work of Matisse, Picasso, Braque and Léger would play an increasingly dominant role in Lichtenstein’s still life output, particularly in his subsequent Cubist and Purist series, the compositions of 1972 – 1974 paid homage to the genre’s lesser-known rebirth in his native America.
Reconstituted with all the glossy perfection of commercial image production, Lichtenstein’s still life objects are no longer fragile ephemeral objects but bold contemporary icons. Reduced to a set of basic circular geometries, the components of Apples, Grapes, Grapefruit are signified purely through shape and colour, stripped of all textural idiosyncrasies and spatial contours. As Jack Cowart has written, ‘Unlike Matisse … who portrayed objects clearly loaded with private, even sentimental, value, Lichtenstein uses objects as if they arrived via a clipping service that borrows from banal catalogues of housewares’ (J. Cowart, ‘Decisive Appearances: The Paintings’, in Roy Lichtenstein 1970-1980, exh. cat., St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, 1981, p. 46). The reductive, highly stylised appearance of these works was the result of Lichtenstein’s labour-intensive method. Each composition began life as a small-scale drawing, often reworked several times before being projected onto canvas. Here, a second stage of drawing and redrafting took place, always deferring to the original sketch, with coloured paper taped into place for reference. It was through this method that stripes began to replace Lichtenstein’s Ben Day dots for the first time: often used in the smaller-scale drawings to indicate rows of dots, they were incorporated into finished canvases from 1969 onwards. Ben Day himself had often used lines in his shading system, and Lichtenstein revelled in their disorientating optical quality, claiming that the stripes had the power to alter our perception of colour.
As John Wilmerding has written, ‘Roy Lichtenstein’s still lifes of the 1970s and early 1980s represent not only a new direction in the work of this Pop master and many of his colleagues at this time, but also an inventive transformation of the genre by a whole generation of artists’ (J. Wilmerding, ‘Roy Lichtenstein’s Still Lifes: Conversations with Art History’, in Roy Lichtenstein: Still Lifes, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2010, p. 9). Indeed, Lichtenstein’s engagement with still life may ultimately be understood within the context of a renewed fascination with objects that followed Abstract Expressionism’s focus on the immaterial. Following the trajectory set in motion by Marcel Duchamp and Jean Tinguely, artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Claes Oldenburg set about creating their own art-objects, whilst Andy Warhol’s paintings of soup cans, Coca Cola bottles and detergent boxes fetishized the mechanisms of mass production. As Allan Kaprow had asserted as early as 1958, ‘Objects of every sort are materials for the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things that will be discovered by the present generation of artists’ (A. Kaprow, ‘The Legacy of Jackson Pollock’, in Art News, vol. 57, no. 6, October 1958, pp. 55-57). For Lichtenstein, whose entire practice was founded on the concept of objectification, still life painting ultimately provided him with a way of historicizing his obsessions. Ben Day dots and reproduced images were, in many ways, the still life painting of the contemporary age. By creating his own versions of the genre in works such as Apples, Grapes, Grapefruit, Lichtenstein fashioned a calling card of sorts, making explicit his own sense of artistic identity.