Installation view of the Roy Lichtenstein exhibition of Brushstrokes, Leo Castelli Gallery, New York c Estate of Roy Lichstenstein
Lichtenstein, Brushstroke Group, 1987 in front of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1994 c Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
Willem de Kooning, Door to the River, 1960 Whitney Museum of American Art c 20004 Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photo c Rob McKeever/Public Art Fund c Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
Brushstroke Group is a New York landmark. Executed in 1987 for the Monte-Carlo Sculpture 87 exhibition, it has subsequently become of a fixture of New York's landscape. First installed at the entrance to Central Park in the Doris C. Freedman Plaza, the work has also been installed outside the Guggenheim Museum and most recently at City Hall where it was the centerpiece of a Lichtenstein sculpture exhibition. Soaring into the air and realized in bold colors, Brushstroke Group is arguably one of the grandest sculptures ever completed by Roy Lichtenstein bringing one of his defining themes to life in a monumental scale.
The evolution of Pop Art has long been acknowledged to be, at least in part, a reaction to Abstract Expressionism. Using cartoons and consumer goods as subjects, Pop Art was a direct challenge to the prevailing New York School aesthetic. Each of the Pop Artists confronted abstraction in their own way, but none were as direct as Lichtenstein. Employing the same comic book aesthetic that propelled him to fame, Lichtenstein began a series of paintings in1965 in which he took the Abstract Expressionists' brushstroke as his subject. The Brushstroke quickly became one of Lichtenstein's signature subjects. At once emulating and cartooning the heroic gesture, Brushstroke Group lampoons the gravitas of gestural painting while paying homage to that fundamental aspect of the artistic process- the brushstroke.
Throughout his body of work, Lichtenstein strove to hide the hand of the artist. He developed techniques that sought to eradicate any clues of a human interloper. Jack Cowart writes, "This compulsive drive to hide artistic changes, the trace of his own hand, and even the fabrication technique, defines his humor and wit, modesty, and modernism. His sculptures, perhaps more than his paintings, evaded Romantic ethos and any sense of excessively personalized work" (J. Coward, "Lichtenstein Sculpture: Multiple Personalities- A Quick Survey of Five Decades," in Lichtenstein Sculpture & Drawings, Washington, D.C., 1999, p.14).
It is Lichtenstein's marginalization of the author that makes Brushstroke Group particularly resonant. Portraying the ultimate symbol of self-expression, the brushstroke, as a sleek fabricated caricature creates a visual and logical crisis. Lichtenstein informs the viewer that he is seeing a "Brushstroke" by using a lexicon of symbols developed from cartooning, a fundamental paradox. Yet the dynamism and dexterity with which Lichtenstein imbues Brushstroke Group is awe inspiring. Fundamentally different from the brushstrokes of an artist like Willem de Kooning, Brushstroke Group conveys as much raw physicality. David Hickey writes, "Far from offering putative comic relief from painterly heroism, Lichtenstein's brushstrokes clearly aspired to replace them, and, in the friendliest manner imaginable, they did just that, not by offering up a new historical style to supplant painterly abstraction, but by offering an alternative model of artistic practice that repositioned abstract painting in a broad field of equally weighted endeavors. In simple terms, Lichtenstein sought to retain the rhetoric of doubt, difficulty and latent abstraction that invigorates modernist practice while dispensing with its directional historical thrust" (D. Hickey, Roy Lichtenstein Brushstrokes: Four Decades, New York, 2001, p. 11).
Brushstroke Group ranks among the best examples of Post-War sculpture. Flying brushstrokes move across the "picture plane" as well as recede into it, creating a magical illusion of pictorial space that floats in thin air. Its forms suggest continuous movement and floods seismic energy through the space it occupies. Like Richard Serra's Torqued Ellipses or Donald Judd's Floor Boxes, Brushstroke Group's impact is as driven by its interaction with its environment as it is about its chosen subject. For all this bravura, Brushstroke Group never loses its sense of humor. It draws strong affinities with Claes Oldenburg's deflating sculptures of hamburgers, drums and light switches- it is no surprise that Lichtenstein and Oldenburg are the premiere sculptors of the Pop movement.
While gently poking fun at the righteousness of Abstract Expressionism, Brushstroke Group also brings to life, in Technicolor glory, the awesome power of the brushstroke. In harmonious counter-balance, its heroic scale and substantial weight are the very elements, which with expressive exuberance, lift the sculpture from its anchoring base. Lichtenstein has transformed the painter's gesture into a new form that is to be celebrated in its own right. Hickey writes, "Like Andy Warhol's Soup Cans, Lichtenstein's brushstrokes were, clearly and at first glance, generational icons. They proposed a critique of the immediate past, clearly intending to supersede it without destroying it- to propose something new that would renew the past" (Ibid, p. 10).