This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
A tip of the hat turns into an explosive gesture in Lichtenstein's highly engaging sculpture, Coup de Chapeau II. The artist translates into three dimensions the signature visual language that he had developed in his seminal Pop oeuvre of the 1960s, with its hallmarks of cartoon-derived imagery, a pared down color scheme and boldly graphic distillation of form. The hat that had once blown off of the head of a comic strip character now bursts through a cloud, leaving an explosion in its wake. This action is a witty visual manifestation of the French expression coup de chapeau, a tip of the hat that signifies the showing of respect. Created in the last years of Lichtenstein's life, the work stands as both an irreverent and poignant monument to the artist's accomplished career.
Coup de Chapeau II expresses a special connection with the artist, as it relates to a self-portrait made in the same year, the painting titled Coup de Chapeau (Self Portrait), which was to be the very last self-portrait he created. Through his instantly recognizable visual syntax of Benday dots and bracing primary colors, Lichtenstein humorously depicts himself as a square-jawed gentleman whose hat has been violently propelled into the air by an unseen force, knocking off his glasses and setting off an explosion that conceals his eyes. The title plays upon the word coup, which by itself signifies a blow or strike -- but what is the artist struck by here? The explosion that conceals his eyes suggests a moment of being dumb-struck, and since the motif of a burst of light had appeared in his work as a kind of shorthand for inspiration, or the shock of the new, we might infer that the artist is depicting himself in a moment of creative awe, which sets the trajectory of the tip of the hat in motion. Indeed a preliminary sketch for the painted self-portrait was inscribed by the artist "Self Portrait (Man hit by the 21st Century)," presenting himself as being blasted with anticipation of what the next millennium will hold. While the figure has disappeared in Coup de Chapeau II, its dynamic composition nevertheless reverberates with the sense of exhilaration conveyed in the self-portrait.
The uncanny character of Lichtenstein's floating hat summons to mind Magritte's famed bowler hats, which appeared throughout the surrealist master's oeuvre and became an emblem of his transformation of the everyday into the enigmatic. Magritte's The Great War obscures the face of a staid bourgeois gentleman with an apple that hovers in front of it, while his bowler hat floats unperturbed upon his head. Lichtenstein maintains a sense of the absurd, while upturning Magritte's omnipresent black hat with the force of a Pop explosion.
There are especially rich connections between Coup de Chapeau II and numerous significant works in Lichtenstein's career. The motif of the comic book derived explosion had recurred with frequency in his seminal Pop works such as Whaam! (Tate Modern) of 1963. Indeed, the creative force of the new movement of Pop was perhaps best summed up in the artist's 1966 "Pop," which embeds the word punctuated with an exclamation point into a blast of color, playing on the name of the movement and the sound abstractly represented through visual form. In the 1960's, Lichtenstein's potent creations managed to "jolt us out of complacency with something we had never seen before, a visual outrage that seemed once threatening and tonic," eminent art historian Robert Rosenblum reminisced.
Sculpture had been a vital part of Lichtenstein's oeuvre since the mid-1940s, a forum to play with translations of space into two dimensions and back into three, much like the cubists' concern with sculpture. In a 1967 interview, Lichtenstein declared, "I was interested in putting two-dimensional symbols on a three-dimensional object" (J. Coplans, Roy Lichtenstein, 1967, p. 16). Among his sculptural creations of the 1960s was a series that explored the theme of explosions in a variety of free-standing and wall-mounted sculptures, which would find a later reincarnation in the center of Coup de Chapeau II. The 1990s witnessed a particular flourishing of the artist's sculptural work. Lichtenstein typically conceived his sculptures by sketching them out on paper, as exemplified in a 1995 sketch for Coup de Chapeau II. This drawing reveals how the artist developed the composition, choosing to turn the hat upwards and adding a double brim that dramatizes the action of tipping through the device of simultaneous narration familiar from cartoons.
Lichtenstein had used sculpture to pay his respects before, most explicitly in his Salute to Painting that was installed at the Walker Art Center in 1986, part of his celebrated brushstrokes series. Coup de Chapeau II shares with this monument the same insistent verticality that harks back to one the most elemental forms of ancient monuments, now reincarnated by Lichtenstein as an off-kilter Pop obelisk.