‘...when Roy worked, he would start with a very strong image, but once he decided what he was going to paint, he would try to get beyond the image to look at it as marks on a canvas--to look at it from as much of an abstract perspective as possible so that he wouldn’t just be reproducing a picture of something. That’s why before he even started in the so-called Pop art style, he designed an easel that rotated. This way he could work on a painting sideways and upside down. And he usually worked with a mirror in the background to get as much distance from the canvas as possible, so he could see it as a whole and in reverse. He was very interested in form and style’
‘When I started to work with dots, they were a comment on printing … at the same time, it’s all dots and lines and color. It’s abstract. I can see what the subject is doing, but I don’t care'
‘With an extremely circumscribed set of technical conventions, Roy Lichtenstein has continually invented images of insistent sparkle, wit and wisdom. No one who emerged in the fervent atmosphere of New York in the early Sixties has been so prolific or achieved such consistent renewal’
‘It is not art trouvé but art retrouvé: refashioned, recovered, reframed. And in the process, the simplistic distinctions between making and manufacturing begin to dissolve’
On long term loan to the Tate since 1993, Mustard on White is Roy Lichtenstein’s first work on Plexiglas, originally owned by the legendary American collectors Victor and Sally Ganz. Meticulously hand-painted in Magna, it is a seminal work from his early Pop practice, and is offered from the collection of Roxanne Rosoman – wife of the celebrated British artist Leonard Rosoman O.B.E. R.A. It was acquired in 1969 by Rosoman’s first husband Leon Levy – a financier, philanthropist and distinguished patron of the arts – and was included in the landmark exhibition Pop Art at the Hayward Gallery, London, that year. Depicting a slender, manicured hand spreading mustard onto a slice of white bread, it takes its place within Lichtenstein’s early series of works inspired by 1960s American diner culture. Comprising fewer than fifteen paintings executed between 1961 and 1963, including Standing Rib, 1962 (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles), his visions of quotidian comestibles were pivotal in establishing the artist as one of the leading exponents of a new global language.
Alongside his appropriations of comic strips and cartoon characters, immaculately reconstructed via his own system of Ben Day dots, Lichtenstein’s seductive images of unremarkable everyday objects fundamentally challenged the boundaries between high art and mass-produced commodities. A comparatively rare medium within the artist’s oeuvre, favoured for the ‘antispectial industrial look’ it afforded, Plexiglas presented Lichtenstein with a new challenge, forcing him to paint the image in reverse. Working from front to back, it was a method that left no room for error: the result is a feat of outstanding technical virtuosity, testifying to the artist’s early mastery of colour and form. From an almost abstract intersection of geometric shapes, executed in bold primary tones, Lichtenstein weaves a piercing commentary on consumer desire. Like Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans and Coca Cola Bottles, created during the same period, it holds a mirror up to contemporary culture, aping – and wittily subverting – the language of commerce and advertising.
The early 1960s was one of the most important periods in Lichtenstein’s practice. In 1961, he had abandoned his futile attempts to ingratiate himself into the already-waning world of Abstract Expressionism, and had committed himself to what he believed to be ‘expressionless’ appropriations of commercial imagery, cartoon characters and consumerist icons. Though he would later turn his attention to more overtly art-historical structures, mimicking Cubist and Surrealist compositions in his deliberately faceless manner, his early depictions of food, domestic objects and comic book archetypes are among the most celebrated works in his oeuvre. Mustard on White is contemporaneous with seminal canvases including Wham! (Tate Modern, London), Hopeless (Kunstmuseum Basel) and Drowning Girl (Museum of Modern Art, New York). Thanks to his landmark exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1962, by the following year Lichtenstein had already become something of a household name. His bold reproductions of familiar imagery spoke directly to the contemporary Zeitgeist: though seemingly harmless, their bright hues and clear-cut geometries exposed a more disturbing truth. In an age where marketing strategists consistently sought new ways of activating consumer desire, mundane objects and scenarios were increasingly placed upon spotlit pedestals. Images of food and household appliances became vehicles for promoting a particular kind of lifestyle: one of domestic bliss and financial security, infused with the promises of the American Dream. By re-making these images under the guise of fine art, Lichtenstein revealed their fundamentally illusory nature. In emphasising their reproducibility – albeit via painstaking means – he diffused their claim to reality.
Lichtenstein’s appropriation of the Ben Day dot system played a critical role in this assault. Made famous by Ben Day in the 1800s as a means of reproducing images, the graded rows of dots were still iconic of commercial illustration by the 1960s. Lichtenstein’s dedication to preserving this aesthetic – at first by hand, and later by stencil and silkscreen – was rooted in his desire to showcase the fallacy of the printed image. By 1963, his technique had reached a new level of sophistication: a far cry from his initial method, which relied upon a dog brush with evenly-spread bristles. ‘The next thing was a metal stencil I made myself’, the artist explained. ‘Then came stencils of perforated metal I bought from the manufacturer. I found a larger steel stencil but I had to keep spraying it with white enamel since it rusted quickly and dirtied the canvas. Then I had paper stencils made for me so I could throw them away after they were used’ (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in Roy Lichtenstein: Meditations on Art, exh. cat., La Triennale di Milano, Milan, 2010, p. 71). By the time Mustard on White was created, Lichtenstein’s stencil was a fine-wire screen that allowed him to achieve the mechanical regularity and gradated precision he desired. In the present work, Lichtenstein contrasts his dots with flat areas of colour that recall the glossy aesthetic espoused by magazine and poster campaigns. Indeed, his sweep of mustard, tantalising in its lustrous sheen, resonates playfully with the abstracted ‘brushstrokes’ that Lichtenstein would go on to create during the late 1960s. In Mustard on White – whose title describes the colour palette as well as the sandwich itself – the knife hovers like a paintbrush above the thick yellow mass: a mocking send-up, perhaps, of his Abstract Expressionist roots.
Lichtenstein remained fascinated by the depiction of everyday objects throughout his career – though his early diner-style menu would later morph into more neutral displays of fruit and vases in deadpan reference to traditional still-life practices. Following Abstract Expressionism’s highly-strung focus on the immaterial, it was a fascination shared by many of his contemporaries: most notably Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and his immediate predecessors Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. In particular, Lichtenstein has spoken of his debt to Allan Kaprow who, in 1958, had declared that ‘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. Not only will these bold creators show us, as if for the first time, the world we have always had about us, but ignored, but they will disclose entirely unheard of happenings and events, found in garbage cans, police files, hotel lobbies, seen in store windows and on the streets, and sensed in dreams and horrible accidents. An odor of crushed strawberries, a letter from a friend or a billboard selling Drano ... all will become materials for this new concrete art’ (A. Kaprow, ‘The Legacy of Jackson Pollock’, in Art News, vol. 57, no. 6, October 1958, pp. 55-57). With its ubiquitous subject matter and incisive presentation, Mustard on White truly embodies the spirit of this revolutionary era.