This work will be included in the forthcoming Roy Lichtenstein Catalogue Raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
Roy Lichtenstein is widely known for his paintings based on material sourced from popular culture, creating prosaic images that are ironic in their tone. Created in 1986, Imperfect Painting forms part of an important late series in the artist's oeuvre, in which he extended his exploration of the reduction of form at a time when 'neo-geo' painting was reaching its ascendancy. With this series, the painter took a playful approach to geometric abstraction, reflecting his ability to continually re-evaluate the strictures of art historical models and bring new meaning to the sign systems of mass culture.
Since his earliest appropriations of commercial illustration and comic book imagery, Lichtenstein's work suggests that, though style may not be everything, every kind of image comes to us packaged with stylistic characteristics that inexorably turn into conventions. "All my art is in some way about other art," he explained, "even if the other art is cartoons" (Lichtenstein, quoted in J. Hendrickson, Roy Lichtenstein, Cologne 2000, frontispiece). As early as 1964, Lichtenstein broke his pattern of basing each painting directly on specific sources, devising his own compositions and sometimes taking specific motifs from his own or other artists' work as found objects for quotation. The Brushstroke paintings of the late sixties, with their imitation of the emotionally driven painterly gestures associated with Abstract Expressionism, and his appropriations of such 20th-century styles as Cubism, Futurism, and Expressionism in the seventies, set the precedent for the abstractions of the Imperfect series in their parody of revered artistic genres. This succession of styles became, for Lichtenstein, an instrument for challenging and understanding art as an expression of an ideal state of being and he consistently chose his subjects on the basis of their appeal as stereotypes.
For the Imperfect series, Lichtenstein moves beyond direct quotation, adapting his signature style to produce compositions built from scratch. As with all Lichtenstein's work, however, these paintings undergo a process of standardization that methodically eradicates traces of the handmade and improvisational to create works that deliberately mimic the type of "nameless or generic abstraction you might find in the background of a sitcom" (Lichtenstein, quoted in D. Solomon, 'The Art Behind the Dots', in The New York Times, 8 March 1987, on www.nytimes.com). Imperfect Painting follows a conceptual rather than emotive approach to painting, but is dominated by Lichtenstein's feeling for the abstract qualities of image making. "It's supposed to be humorous," he explained, "Art becomes this game of whether I hit the edges" (ibid).
Lichtenstein began this series in 1985 with the production of "perfect" paintings, abstract compositions of triangles and quadrilaterals formed within intersecting lines filled with large planes of flat colour, dots and stripes. As the lines usually meet in points at the edge of the canvas, these highly asymmetrical compositions generate a tension within the image that is opposed to the rectilinear format, whilst also signalling a dynamic outwards thrust. The “imperfect” paintings that followed take these darting angles further than their predecessors, breaking free from the canvas edge. Instead of making the triangles fit, the edges project beyond the limits of the canvas to deliberately disturb the relationship between figure and ground. The protrusion to the upper edge of Imperfect Painting is slight and not immediately observed, but once noticed, the “imperfection” is impossible to ignore.
Although distanced from the narrative aspects of his earlier work, these abstractions arguably remain figurative, in their ironic re-presentation of the aesthetic problems confronted by artists as diverse as Piet Mondrian, Frank Stella and Elsworth Kelly. Lichtenstein was fascinated by the way an artistic picture operates differently from all other pictures, and sought to investigate the limits and possibilities of art whilst also confronting the myth of the artist. In Imperfect Painting, Lichtenstein's anonymous, though paradoxically personal style of painting, with its imitation of industrial reproduction techniques, seeks to undermine the purity typically attributed to abstraction. The typically irreverent conflation of 'high' and 'low' in Lichtenstein's work is coupled here with a flagrant disregard of many abstract artists faith in the integrity of the picture surface. In titling the series Imperfect Paintings, Lichtenstein not only indicates the introduction of a sculptural aspect to an otherwise two-dimensional image, but also his conviction that all quests for higher meaning are absurd.
The monumental and elegant Imperfect Painting brings a teasing approach to pure abstraction, which contrasts with the spiritual rhetoric often attached to the early modernists and their strict avoidance of three-dimensional spatiality in painting. This experimentation with shaped canvas and geometric imagery represents the formidable level of inventiveness Lichtenstein sustained throughout his career, by displaying a subversive questioning of pictorial precedents that confronts complex artistic problems in a uniquely simple and striking visual form.