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Post Lot Text
This work will appear in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
Painted in 1977, Roy Lichtenstein’s Landscape with Figures presents an exhilarating compendium of art historical reference that is simultaneously a self-reflective tour de force of his own practice. Situated at a pivotal moment in Lichtenstein’s oeuvre, the work stems from his series of so-called Surrealist works that, created between 1977 and 1979, stand among the artist’s most complex paintings. These works dramatically extend his earlier practice of wry appropriation that spanned reproductions of Cézanne and Mondrian to comic book illustration. Landscape with Figures presents a virtuosic tableau that splices and recombines the full gamut of twentieth-century image making, reprising and anticipating elements of Lichtenstein’s own output alongside acts of homage to the great Modernist masters. Allusions to René Magritte and Pablo Picasso sit beside forms that evoke the work of Henry Moore and El Lissitzky, jostling for recognition amidst references to Lichtenstein’s own artistic vernacular, with elements of Brushstroke, Trompe l’Oeil and Self-Portrait works. His iconic Ben-Day dots and stripes, drawn from the world of commercial graphics, combine with strong blocks of color and sharp linear forms that overwrite his enigmatic historical tableau with the cool indifference of Pop Art. Surrealism and Cubism, sculpture and architecture, painting and printing, are here evoked and rebuked in equal measure. Through this visual cacophony, Lichtenstein’s rigorous commentary on the boundary between "High" and "Low" art is brought to a resounding climax, paving the way for his continued engagement with the art historical canon throughout the 1980s and 1990s. An enigmatic and multifaceted composition, both retrospective and prophetic, Landscape with Figures is an outstanding example of the artist’s definitive dictum: “All my art is in some way about other art” (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in J. Hendrickson, Roy Lichtenstein, Cologne, 2000, frontispiece).
Breathtaking in the sheer scope of its referential compass, Landscape with Figures is laced with coded allusions to art-historical tropes, aligning elements from his own visual lexicon with those of his twentieth-century forbears. The suited figure on the far left is as evocative of Magritte’s The Son of Man (1964) as it is prophetic of Lichtenstein’s own Self-Portrait (1978), in which the artist’s head is replaced with the geometric form of a mirror. The woman reclining upon the beach in the foreground was to become a central figure within the Surrealist works, recalling Picasso’s own interest in the subject whilst simultaneously rendered with the curvilinear contours of a Henry Moore sculpture. The pointed geometric forms that occupy the right-hand edge of the canvas were also significant within the series. Often taking on an anthropomorphic quality, they reference similar constructs in the work of El Lissitzky, Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico, and pave the way for Lichtenstein’s own abstract play in his Imperfect paintings of the 1980s. The perforated block of Swiss cheese—a recurring Surrrealist-inspired symbol within Lichtenstein’s works of this period - merges with a sweep of yellow paint that has its roots in his Brushstroke series, in which painterly gesture was reduced to a graphic, cartoon-like presentation. Here, it also suggests the hair of the abstracted face that graces the centre of the painting, whose singular eye and exaggerated teardrop enhances Lichtenstein’s homage to Picasso and Magritte. Her nose is replaced with the form of a teepee, a subject of great interest for Lichtenstein at this time, later cemented in his Native American Surrealist works. Many American artists, including Lichtenstein’s contemporaries Jasper Johns, Frank Stella and Donald Judd, were increasingly fascinated by their country’s indigenous past, and Lichtenstein’s proximity to the Shinnecock Indian reservation on Long Island, New York during the 1970s led him to incorporate symbolic markers of this culture into his Surrealist works.
Just as the composition appears to reach its saturation point, the entire construct is undermined by a classic trompe-l’oeil gesture: Lichtenstein paints a curled roll of paper that peels back to reveal blue sky and clouds. Harking back to the artist’s earlier Trompe l’Oeil works, the motif is inherently connected to Surrealist practices yet also speaks directly to the heart of Lichtenstein’s own aesthetic. Within an oeuvre founded upon the dialogue between High and Low culture, Lichtenstein’s interests in the history of fine art were balanced with a fascination with the genres of comic book illustration and mass reproduction of images. His Ben-Day dots and stripes, both of which are present in Landscape with Figures, first appeared in Lichtenstein’s oeuvre in the 1960s and were the direct product of this line of enquiry. Standing as the ultimate signifiers for the inherent artificiality of image-making, these techniques allowed the artist to position his own idiom as a trompe-l’oeil of sorts, treading the boundary between painting and reproduction. By including an explicit trompe-l’oeil gesture in the present work, Lichtenstein subtly highlights the conceptual orientation of his practice. One stylized rendition of the sky simply gives way to another, reminding us that however much we unpack the different layers of his composition, we will never arrive at an original reality. This is reflected in the enigmatic layering of symbols and references that constitutes Landscape with Figures, allusive yet ultimately impenetrable. In this regard, the work may be said to encapsulate the very essence of Lichtenstein’s practice: a postmodern commentary on the relationship between image and reality, deeply self-aware of art’s illusory status and exploring the potential in ready-made strategies of representation. In this way, Landscape with Figures may be said to constitute a summation of Lichtenstein’s artistic outlook.
Speaking of his Surrealist works, Lichtenstein has explained how “They were of no particular Surrealist artist, just Surrealism in general. I took certain elements from painting I have done in the past: a man’s suit, a shirt and tie from a dry cleaning ad, the Brushstroke ... I used a flowing line to make a torso with holes through it like a slice through a Henry Moore sculpture. I used a mixture of improbable elements (there is even an early Imperfect painting and a Greek column) to give the feeling of a Surrealist painting. These works are something like the Artist’s Studio paintings in that they are large compositions that include various images from various periods” (R. Lichtenstein, “A Review of My Work Since 1961,” 1995, quoted in G. Mercurio, Roy Lichtenstein: Meditations on Art, Milan, 2010, p. 235). Working upon a rotating easel, Lichtenstein spun his canvases around, painting upside down and sideways, horizontally and vertically, evoking the automatic practices through which the Surrealist artists attempted to unlock new ways of seeing. Yet as Cowart describes, Lichtenstein presents a strikingly contemporary twist on the legacy of his forbears, absorbing their aeshetic into his own iconic visual style and restating their claims in his own terms. “Gone is the European old-master patina of historical Surrealism”, he explains. “What are presented instead are high-color, pared-down, bilateral, or compositionally distinct puzzles. They are studies in opposites and not just formal ones. Lichtenstein remains obsessed with constructing fresh new ‘equivalences’ of meaning, composition, symbol, and technique, and changing our perceptual habits” (J. Cowart, Roy Lichtenstein 1970-1980, exh. cat., Saint Louis Art Museum, 1981, p. 115). For Lichtenstein, who has spoken elsewhere of his desire to produce works “like a five-and-dime-store Picasso”, these paintings simultaneously reduce and glorify his art-historical lineage (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London 2002, p. 230).
Lichtenstein may have been prompted to look back on his career by the publication of his first retrospective monograph by Diane Waldman in 1972. Indeed, as Jack Cowart explains, the Surrealist paintings are in many ways a direct response to the critical reception of Lichtenstein’s work during the 1960s and 1970s. “As art writers of the late 1960s and early ‘70s were faced with Lichtenstein’s quiet evasions or disjunctions they, rightly or wrongly, called these qualities Surrealist. In 1977 the artist compounded the issue and began his own ‘official’ Surrealism, resulting in a significant body of work ... His earlier works were inferential, but the new works are overt and heighten, rather than resolve, the question of the role of historical Surrealism in Lichtenstein’s oeuvre” (J. Cowart, Roy Lichtenstein 1970-1980, exh. cat., Saint Louis Art Museum, 1981, p. 109). During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Lichtenstein witnessed European Surrealism’s impact on the New York art scene, particularly amongst the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. “Surrealism for Lichtenstein is therefore self-referential, a major formative nutrient”, continues Cowart. “In objectifying his fantasies and sources in his 1970s Surrealism he is now meeting his mentors head on, allowing the past and his debts to be recognized ... The new works are executed in strong bright colors with explicit line, form, and mixtures of striping, Ben-Day dots, and wood grain. There is a complex experimental feeling of balance, overlaid by the imagery and the nominal ‘subject’ or anecdote. Residual tensions and suggestions of adventure emerge as the works are sometimes awkward in their unassimilated mixes. Included are vestiges of his Pop comic works, Brushstrokes, Temples, Pyramids, Mirrors, Entablatures, Landscapes, Still Lifes, Trompe l’Oeils, Office Still Lifes, and Abstractions, and minor references to yet other works. Having developed style, technical expertise, and malleability in the intended rendering and communication between 1970 and 1977, Lichtenstein now combines all these skills in a virtuosic display” (J. Cowart, Roy Lichtenstein 1970-1980, exh. cat., Saint Louis Art Museum, 1981, p. 111).
In Landscape with Figures, Lichtenstein makes apparent his deeply personal take upon the artistic traditions he invokes. By treating elements of his own practice with the same re-interpretive license, he ultimately inscribes himself within the wide-ranging canon of image-making that nourished his multifaceted practice. Profoundly self-referential, it is a work that restates his influences within his own language whilst simultaneously capitulating the trajectory of his own practice. In this way, it serves to embody Lichtenstein’s claim that “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. Lichtenstein, quoted in C. Tomkins, Roy Lichtenstein: Mural with Blue Brushstroke, New York 1988, p. 42).