This work will be included in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
Woman II belongs to a series of four paintings executed between 1981-82 that Roy Lichtenstein based on Willem de Kooning's celebrated Woman series from the 1950s. This small suite of works brilliantly exemplifies Lichtenstein's satirical character and brings together the greatest visual tropes of his career. Bound up within the sensuously expressive depictions of paint splashes are his interests in quoting past masters' pictorial conventions, his replication of mechanically-produced imaging techniques, and his fascination with women as a subject in his art.
Just like Lichtenstein's comic-inspired girls, Woman II is based on the product of an artist's imagination rather than a portrait of the real thing. It is a work that establishes an extraordinary painterly dialogue with a methodology that Lichtenstein's own art famously rebelled against and superseded. In the 1960s Lichtenstein had formed a crucial part of Pop's retort to the hegemony of Abstract Expressionist painterliness. The radical nature of his appropriation of cheap, mass-media imagery promptly deflated the soul-searching claims and emphasis on the artist's touch that defined the work of the previous generation and opened up an entirely new world of conceptual possibilities for painting. With the comic and advertising-based images that made his name, Lichtenstein established a modus operandi that addressed itself to the nature of depiction and the way meaning is attributed to style. He would subsequently turn this mirror onto the realm of high art when he began blending his self- consciously crude techniques with images purloined from the major artists and movements in modern art history. Woman II is a continuation of this project and confronts one of the greatest giants of the art world when Lichtenstein came of age.
De Kooning's paintings of hulking, wild-eyed women are an iconic part of the Abstract Expressionist enterprise, and as such, they have become a powerful visual clich that has acquired so much meaning and familiarity it is difficult to see them on their own terms. Lichtenstein was highly attuned to the stature of these works and sought to undermine and demystify the cult status they had acquired. With typical shrewdness and whimsy, he has dismantled the attributes of these canonized images into their constituent parts of gestural brushstrokes and alluring, though barely tangible form. He has also rendered the subject anew in four unique paintings, as if mimicking de Kooning's prolonged and repeated battles to capture a "slipping glimpse" of the female figure. Diane Waldman has discussed the subtle distinctions and variations of Lichtenstein's Woman paintings through the evolution of the series. She writes, "Lichtenstein, like de Kooning, progressed in his paintings of women from a clearly recognizable though dramatically altered figure to an image in which only the barest suggestion of a female eye and mouth lend it any reality whatsoever... Lichtenstein based his first paintings in this series on a close reading of de Kooning's Woman, 1950, with the eyes, mouth, lips, breast, arm, and leg in the same positions. But Lichtenstein's Woman II, Woman III, and Woman IV appear to be variations on his own first Woman painting rather than modeled on any of the variations in de Kooning's series" (D. Waldman, Roy Lichtenstein, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, exh. cat., New York, 1993, p. 265).
Woman II's isolated brushstrokes and unyielding flatness diverge greatly from the dense layers of pigment in de Kooning's variegated canvases. Lichtenstein's individualized, monochromatic smears hover unanchored to the stark white ground as if they were only coalescing momentarily or accidently into the suggestion of a woman's body. There are a few visual tricks that lend the appearance of layering, whereby the undulating streaks of pigment seem to fold back on themselves, but this is entirely illusory. Lichtenstein treats the strokes of color as emblematic motifs, which have been carefully transposed one by one onto canvas in a paint-by-numbers manner. In order to achieve this affect Lichtenstein adapted the process he developed to create his Brushstoke paintings in the mid-1960s. This earlier series took the signature bravura brushstroke of the Abstract Expressionists and reframed it within the Pop idiom. The bold simplicity of these large compositions belies their technical complexity and meticulous handiwork. Lichtenstein formulated the convincing clarity of his brushstroke images through a process of trial and error. He soon discovered he could not adequately draw an archetypal brushstroke so began experimenting with ink or Magna on acetate. As Bernice Rose describes, he found that the acetate repelled the wet medium, forcing it to "crawl" back into itself and become almost its own imitation, in effect, extending the notion of a copy of a copy to the material itself. He then projected this image onto a canvas.
Woman II similarly began as a small sketch on acetate that was enlarged onto canvas via a projector. Lichtenstein used almost identical streaks of color in the study, which he has adapted only slightly to give the larger image greater impact and resolve. This includes outlining most of the paler hues of pink and yellow in hard black outlines to give more definition to their shapes. He has also added stokes of pink to indicate a crown of hair and a patch of Ben-Day dots that seem to cast the woman's face in half shadow. Although the initial study exhibits a fluidity and spontaneity akin to the intuitive painting methods of de Kooning, Lichtenstein's fully realized painting is transformed through his emotionally detached and carefully calculated practice. This is the ultimate countermove against the Abstract Expressionist's stream-of-consciousness style of painting. In this composition, Lichtenstein has formulated the fundamental building block of artistic practice--the distinctive, unrepeatable mark of the artist's-hand--into a kind of readymade that affirms his ironic intent in characterizing or caricaturing art history's most hallowed styles.