Modern art seen through Roy Lichtenstein’s signature Ben Day aesthetic, Purist Painting with Bottles, 1975, is one of a handful of works by the artist that addresses the post-Cubist movement of Purism. A departure from the 1960s pop culture imagery which he had already conquered, in the 1970s Lichtenstein turned his focus to the art historical canon. Having first embarked on a series of Cubist inspired still-lives from 1973, by 1975 Lichtenstein’s practice found affinity with the radical approach and visual kinship to Purism and Purist Painting with Bottles stands as an adroit yet playful homage to early 20th century Modernism.
Championed by Le Corbusier, Fernand Léger, and Amédée Ozenfant, Purism arose in the 1920s, in the aftermath of Cubism as a movement that espoused an aesthetic tabula rasa. Seeking out everyday objects such as bottles and glasses as the subject matter for their still life compositions, Purism celebrated the functional quality of these utilitarian items by paring them down their most elemental form. Once seen as controversial, the Purist interest in flattening the images of the everyday became absorbed in the discourse of Modern Art. Informed both by the Purist interest in ubiquitous objects, and Pop’s engagement with generic consumer good advertisements, Lichtenstein’s Purist Pictures unite the mutual ambition of both movements to distil a composition to one which is immediately recognizable.
The present work exemplifies Lichtenstein’s celebrated reductive aesthetic and intuitive compositional awareness, continuing Lichtenstein’s on-going aesthetic of appropriation and reinvention. Employing his signature reductive strategies shared by cheap commercial printing processes, Lichtenstein’s Ben Day dots decontextualize high art into the realms of the tabloid, the billboard and the magazine. Testament to his own innovative artistic vision, Lichtenstein engrains his own instantly recognisable painterly language into the canon of art history with both irreverence with reverence. Elements of this painting resemble Mondrian more than they do Ozenfant or Léger, especially the squares and rectangles in the upper half. Indeed, a pervasive Purist or even Cubist aesthetic can be felt in the mechanical reduction of the composition to its only most necessary lines and omission of perspective. Deriving elements from the general vocabulary of art, Lichtenstein restates the work of other artists in his own terms. ‘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. Tompkins, Mural with Blue Brushstroke, New York, 1987, p. 42).
Overturning the ordered precision and rational, mathematically-based principles that govern Purist compositions, Lichtenstein’s hatching and Ben Day dots articulate and define the various shadings, textures and perspectives within this still life. Appearing like an illustration in an art history text book, here the Purist composition is built from layers of coloured dots, which speak to the mechanical aesthetic of mass reproduction. Indeed, the Purist also embraced technology, focusing on mechanical and industrial subject matter. In this way, Lichtenstein transforms the Purist still life into a visual idiom more associated with printing, with pulp, and with Pop.
For Lichtenstein’s work to be recognised as related to comics or to advertisements, he needed to be able to condense the appearances of the various objects into an almost shorthand image reminiscent of the mass media – thus the martini glass and bottles of this work become archetypes in the same manner of his hotdogs and brushstrokes of his earlier works. Thus the methods of representation honed to perfection by the press and publishing industries and then high-jacked by Lichtenstein echo the idealism of Purist painting, as well as many other aesthetically driven movements: ‘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 cliché. 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, pp. 226-227).
Lichtenstein is not the first artist to borrow concepts from his predecessors, but as a member of the Pop Art generation his approach to appropriation is a very modern one. During his graduate studies at art school he became interested in the psychology of perception and the problems of pictorial representation and was heavily influenced by the work of Picasso, Klee and Miró. He later became fascinated by the distinctions between so-called high and low art and this led him to produce several bodies of work in which he combined his own unique style with ideas he appropriated from some of the 20th century’s greatest artists. A pioneer of Pop art, one of Lichtenstein’s greatest legacies is initiating 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.
The processes and aesthetic values that Lichtenstein shared with Purism lends Purist Painting with Bottles an internal cohesion and logic greater than in many of his takes on other art movements. Indeed, with its removal of the painterly, with his insistence on a means of painting that removes the evidence of the artist’s hand and with the introduction of the strict lines, uniform colours and regular means of hatching, Lichtenstein has taken Purism beyond its former limits.