Red Barn I, hand painted in 1969, relates both in its style and its content, to two integral strands of importance in Lichtenstein's work--high art and Pop Art. Red Barn I presents a vision of an American isolationist utopia distorted in the customary Lichtenstein style. The image appears to hark back to the quintessentially American rural idylls portrayed in the paintings of such artists as Grant Wood and Fairfield Porter, and yet its reductive cartoon styling adds the inevitable sense of mockery so characteristic of Lichtenstein's work. In his cartoon adaptations, Lichtenstein deliberately raised the banal to the level of high art, transforming images from simple adverts and comics into respectable oil paintings. However, in Red Barn I, instead of tackling a reproduced, mechanical image, Lichtenstein highjacks the entire landscape tradition so revered by conservative artists.
Lichtenstein himself stated that 'All my art is in some way about other art, even if the other art is cartoons.' (Lichtenstein, quoted in J. Hendrickson, Roy Lichtenstein, Cologne, 2000, frontispiece). In Red Barn I, the American heartland so beloved by an earlier generation of American figurative artists has been boiled down and, apart from the dotted sky, appears in a style reminiscent of painting by numbers, perhaps referring to fellow Pop Artist Andy Warhol's Do It Yourself series of 1962. Lichtenstein, by giving the impression that 'anyone can do it', implies a democratisation of art as he attacks every notion of respectable style or subject matter. However, Red Barn I is packed with an erudite density of references, especially to the art of the United States. Lichtenstein knew the American artistic canon intimately--during the 1950s, many of his works parodied Americana, rendering the epic themes and characters of the nation's history in styles--for instance mock-cubism--that were completely and humourously incongruous with their subject matter. In Red Barn I, Lichtenstein revisits the old theme of Americana by depicting a simple, quaint barn, the perfect image of clean living and hard work yet, where he had formerly used artistic styles to ironise his subjects, here he presents the building as though it were in a comic. This epitomic image from the heart of the United States has been ritually degraded.
In the reduced presentation of the scene through uniform planes of flat colour and the regular dots that make up the sky, Lichtenstein invokes a sense of mechanical reproduction, belittling the artistic process itself. This creates a tension between the picture and its subject--the image of the barn, with all the simple values and nostalgia it invokes, is the complete antithesis of the mechanical process invoked by the painting. Where his earlier Pop works had presented the mundane and industrial on a large scale, granting them minor apotheoses, in Red Barn I and other landscapes Lichtenstein reversed the formula, making respected and magical themes appear mundane and industrial.
The detached and quasi-scientific methods Lichtenstein used in order to create works such as Red Barn I themselves formed part of his investigation into the nature of art: 'I draw a small picture--the size that will fit into my opaque projector--and project it onto the canvas. I don't draw a picture in order to reproduce it--I do it in order to recompose it' (Quoted in J. Coplans, 'Talking with Roy Lichtenstein', pp. 198-202, Pop Art: A Critical History, ed. S.H. Madoff, Berkeley & London, 1997, p. 198). Although this technique allowed Lichtenstein to improve the composition in certain ways, the projection of the image provided such constraint that it necessitated his objectivity, both in removing himself from the creative process and in scientifically tampering with his source. This interest in the painting process itself is an important reminder of the influence of performance art on Lichtenstein's work. Lichtenstein knew about and even participated in various 'Happenings' in the late 1950s and early 1960s. While enchanted by the wit so often central to these Happenings, Lichtenstein was also prompted to ask himself questions about the nature of artistic creation. While many Pop Artists removed themselves from the process of creation by reproducing images mechanically, for instance in Warhol's screenprints, Lichtenstein instead created an artistic style that, although integrally linked to 'painterly' action, at the same time ironised it.
Red Barn I relates to the Red Barn II, also painted in 1969 and now housed in the Museum Ludwig, Cologne--a much larger work that lacks the tight composition of its predecessor. This image of a farm, of man's interaction with nature, packs a punch with its concise simplicity.
Fig. 1 Roy Lichtenstein, Red Barn II, 1969, oil and magna on canvas, Museum Ludwig, Cologne
Fig. 2 Andy Warhol, Do It Yourself (Seascape), 1962, synthetic polymer and silkscreen inks on canvas, Collection Marx
Fig. 3 Roy Lichtenstein, Study for Red Barn I, 1969, colored pencils and pencil on paper, private collection
Fig. 4 Grant Wood, American Gothic, oil on board, Art Institute of Chicago