Post Lot Text
This work will appear in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
Although well-known for his paintings that drew their subject matter from the melodrama played out between the covers of mass-market comic books, Roy Lichtenstein’s landscapes are an important part of his early oeuvre and did much to help develop and enunciate his iconic Pop language. Painted in 1965, Sunrise is one of a select group of landscapes that Lichtenstein painted incorporating his strong, bold lines and passages of high-keyed color together with his signature Ben-Day dots to capture the ethereal emotions and sensations conjured up by the warm rays of the rising sun. This rare example is the only one of the six sunrise works to have been executed as a painting, the others all having been fabricated in a variety of media ranging from screenprint on silk to porcelain enamel on perforated steel.
Both physically and metaphorically, the majestic red sun that emerges from the nest of cumulus white clouds lies at the very center of this painting. Not only does its searing core act as the focal point of the entire composition, it also becomes the source of many of the other elements that make up this painting. From the warm yellow rays of light that radiate out from the center to the blankets of dark shadow that cover the ground and the peaks of the clouds, Lichtenstein’s sun—much like the real thing—is the sustainer of all things. By the time he painted Sunrise, Lichtenstein’s graphic language had become so advanced that he was able to convey some of the most subtly nuanced areas of light and shadow to greater effect here than in many of his earlier works. The strong rays of the early morning sun are demarcated by solid bands of yellow tones deftly constrained by borders of black paint. In the lower portions of the canvas areas of red Ben-Day dots offer up a sensation of warm, hazy sunshine while passages of blue Ben-Day dots add a sense of depth and volume to the fluffy white cloud. Finally the artist makes a rare foray into chiaroscuro by laying down an area of red dots, overlaid with blue dots, to produce a passage of deeper shadow, a method that directly imitates the two-color printing process of early mass-commercial printing that energized Lichtenstein’s painting so much.
Despite his desire to emulate the techniques of mass-production, Lichtenstein’s paintings from this period are remarkable in their complexity and display of the artist’s manual dexterity. Sunrise followed in this tradition, as all of the artist’s parodies of commercial printing were, in fact, painstakingly undertaken by hand. The initial stage of any Lichtenstein painting would involve the artist tracing the outline of his most recent study, which he projected onto the surface of the canvas. Close examination of the surface of Sunrise reveals traces of these delicate lines—lines that were so important to the artist that he once admitted “A lot of time is taken up with the drawing part and there’s more work on the drawing part than is probably apparent” (R. Lichtenstein, quoted by J. A. Ramírez, “Lichtenstein, In Process,” in Roy Lichtenstein: Beginning to End, exh. cat., Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 2007, p. 28). Lichtenstein would then mask off areas using tape before arranging pieces of collaged paper containing the colors he required or the density of Ben-Day dots he needed before finally settling on the required structure of the painting. It was only after he pronounced himself satisfied with the composition that he began the painstaking process of applying the paint to the surface of the canvas.
Even though Lichtenstein’s reductive painterly method expertly conveys the searing heat and brightness of the morning sun, his concern was not to reproduce reality but to investigate the way these graphical tropes convey the feelings and emotions that they do. Lichtenstein found that landscapes provided a good example of how generalized references to a style are often used rather than the specific original itself. For example, images of sunrises and sunsets are prevalent in Art Deco design with expanding beams radiating from a fat, low sun, the curved form of the clouds produced by large expanses of color. As Lichtenstein stated “I am removed from the emotions I am depicting, because they are usually ironic or even silly…. The emotions I deal with are placement and a kinesthetic sense of position and color, character of shape, and that sort of thing” (R. Lichtenstein, quoted by R. Fine, “Your Makeup is Your Freedom; Your Purpose is Your Control,” in Roy Lichtenstein: Beginning to End, exh. cat., Fondación Juan March, Madrid, 2007, p. 27).
The landscape genre was one of the first topics that Lichtenstein turned to following his iconic comic-inspired Girl paintings of 1964, and one that he would return to with some regularity. He was drawn to clichéd or dated subjects, and the genre of landscape seemed appealingly remote from avant-garde concerns. While their subject matter seems unlike Lichtenstein’s early Pop Art comic paintings, his painted landscapes were, in fact, appropriated from the backgrounds of cartoon scenes. Lichtenstein used the same durable halftone dots but here distilled the compositions down to the most basic pictorial elements. The results progress from more overtly representational works like the present lot to almost completely abstract works like the blue Seascape (1964). Over time, the black outlines present in Sunrise disappear completely, leaving bands of solid color and massed groupings of dots to define the pictorial space—ocean, mountains, sky.
In choosing this particular motif, Lichtenstein harnesses the universality of the sun within the human psyche. Unlike his Girl paintings, which featured the distinctly American concept of the teenager, the sun possesses universal appeal. For millennia it has been at the center of human civilization and because of its long recognized role in supporting life on Earth, many societies have imbued it with a prominent role in their religious customs. In the Western tradition, the Greeks worshipped the mythical sun god Helios, who wore a shining crown and rode across the sky in a chariot turning night into day as he went. The Romans then adapted this fabled figure into their mythology as Sol, whose festival was celebrated in December 21st (the Winter Solstice). The worship of the sun in the Eastern custom can trace its roots back to the ancient Egyptians who identified the Sun with Ra, one of their major deities. In Hindu religious texts, the sun is noted as the only visible form of God that can be seen every day and many religious texts referred to the sun as a king, who rides on a chariot of seven horses.
Although Lichtenstein took his inspiration for Sunrise directly from one of the landscapes he had seen in a comic book, in choosing this particular subject, he was joining a pantheon of artists who recognized the power of this particular motif to stir the emotions. From J.M.W. Turner to Claude Monet, from Edvard Munch to Edwin Church, the celebration of the sun and its quasi-spirituality has long been a lucrative trope for generations of artists. However, Lichtenstein’s approach was different, according to critic Lawrence Alloway “The Landscapes and Mountains combine Lichtenstein’s abiding concern with cliché, in relation to the time-binding property of art, the presence of the past on the present, with his increasing interest in color and unified imagery. The fact these different preoccupations are balanced unobtrusively is typical of Lichtenstein’s self-evaluative but reserved demeanor” (L. Alloway, Lichtenstein, New York, 1983, p. 53).
Lichtenstein recognized that what he was doing was revolutionary in the Western art tradition, but saw parallels in art from further afield. “I think that what we’re doing is something that hasn’t been done in Europe,” he said “but then European artists also were doing things that weren’t done before in their own tradition. I think that even Oriental art fits into this tradition in the sense that there’s a different stylistic aspect to it” (R. Lichtenstein, interviewed by J. Jones, October 5, 1965, quoted by G. Barker (ed.), October Files: Roy Lichtenstein, Cambridge, 2009, pp. 17-18). This interest in the artistic traditions of Asia dates back to Lichtenstein’s days as a student. In the thesis for his Master’s Degree at Ohio State University he included a poem by the 12th century Chinese poet and painter Ma Yuan, whose refined landscapes often contained a peaceful symmetry that can also be found in Lichtenstein’s landscapes. Yuan was highly regarded for the reductive nature of his Chinese landscapes, and his paintings are characterized by the use of bold thick lines and the inclusion of only the most essential compositional elements, qualities that have strong parallels in Lichtenstein’s work.
In no other genre was Lichtenstein as experimental with materials and media in his quest to create illusionistic optical effects. Seashore (1964), painted in reverse on the back of multiple, layered sheets of Plexiglass, projects a sense of depth. Seascape (1965) and Pink Seascape (1965) utilize the reflective surface of Rowlux, a lenticular plastic that conveys the impression of movement, even liquidity, when viewed at different angles. Perforated Seascape #1 (Blue) (1965), a work of enamel on steel, further heightens the sense of movement through the moiré pattern created by its layered construction. In these scenic works, Lichtenstein conveyed the indeterminate essence of light and water, or stylized them through exaggerated curves or straight lines, creating the impression of a landscape in a remarkably economical manner.
With its myriad of rich historical and cultural associations, artists throughout history have gained inspiration from the sun but none have managed to capture the intensity of its rays in such a dynamic way as Roy Lichtenstein. By depicting such an omnipresent motif in such a contemporary way, Lichtenstein forces us to challenge the centuries-old rules of visual communication in a way that had never really been done before. By rendering something seemingly so familiar and simple, in such a new and revolutionary way, Lichtenstein was establishing a new visual language for the multi-media generation, as the artist himself pointed out, “There is something humorous about doing a sunset in a solidified way, especially the rays, because a sunset has little or no specific form. It is like the explosions they are never really perceived as defined shapes” (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in J. Coplans, “Talking with Roy Lichtenstein,” Artforum, 5, no. 9, May 1967, pp. 34-39). Just as with his iconic Girl paintings, the reconceptualization of history is what lies at the very heart of Lichtenstein’s work. With Sunrise, Lichtenstein contributes to the legacy of art history in his inimitable and ironic fashion. Here, his subject matter enabled him to make a knowing and witty nod to art-historical precedents, including that of his own paintings that were by this time gaining critical recognition. The result is a complex amalgamation of appropriation that exemplified new approaches to visual practice in the post-modern era.