This work will appear in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
With her scarlet lips and flowing locks of golden hair, Roy Lichtenstein’s Crying Girl belongs to one of the most iconic series in the 20th century artistic canon. One of the resounding images of the Pop generation, Lichtenstein takes as his muse one of the phalanx of heroines that were to be found within the covers of the mass produced romance novels often found in bookshops and at supermarket checkouts across the country. This larger than life-size work exemplifies Lichtenstein’s artistic practice, as it casts a spotlight onto the way that images are created and understood in the mass-media age. Here he assembles a series of abstract lines and dots that come together and become comprehensible. One of the artist’s earliest works which he executed in porcelain enamel on steel, Crying Girl also explores the boundaries between subject and object as the artist examines the ephemera of popular culture, and shines a spotlight on the way images function within the broad mass of the populace.
Crying Girl employs Lichtenstein’s signature style—his range of motifs that ape the style of the hugely popular comic romance novels from the 1950s. These bold lines, Ben-day dots and brash colors were the language conveyed by the explosion in the printed media. Here, the flat passages of golden yellow that make up her hair are defined by the broad flourishes of royal blue that act almost as highlights—outlining her luscious curls. The same strokes define the silhouette of her pert nose and perfectly plucked eyebrows, even managing to contain the vibrant red of her seductive—slightly pursed—lips. Lichtenstein goes on to denote her complexion with a veil of Ben-Day dots, each one rendered with perfect precision. The evenness of their application, applied without gradation or a sense of shading, implies a flawless (almost ivory-like) quality to the skin—the only sense of dissonance being a single vertical line that indicates just the merest hint of a furrow to her forehead. The fact that all this is executed to such a high standard in enamel only adds to the porcelain-like quality of this work.
Framed by her flawlessly coiffed shock of blond hair, Lichtenstein’s subject is caught in a moment of apparent vulnerability. Wiping away a tear from her perfectly shaped eye, the artist invites contemplation as to her current state. Why is she crying, who has upset her and what will happen next? If one refers to the original source image, the narrative is clear. “The night seemed filled with a thousand empty eternities…” says text in the opening scene, while the heroine’s speech bubble declares “I… I can’t stand it… I’ll apologize tomorrow… after all—it was his first success… He was excited… forgetful…” (Phyllis Read (ed.)., Secret Hearts #88, June 1963). In Crying Girl, Lichtenstein removes all the text and in withholding the narrative succeeds in heightening the sense of drama. In the present work we ostensibly see a girl crying, wiping away the tear that forms in the corner of her eye. But with no accompanying information, the reason behind her tears are left to our imagination. By isolating this one cell from the usual strip format of the cartoon layout and rendering it devoid of any contextual speech bubbles or setting, we the viewer are invited to fill in the blanks and resolve the inherent sense of drama with our own imagination. Executed in 1964, Crying Girl sits alongside the pantheon of other iconic paintings that Lichtenstein created during the early 1960s, such as Hopeless, 1963 (Kunstmuseum Basel), Drowning Girl, 1963 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Hello, 1963 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) all depicting a solitary young woman suffering from some form of emotional distress.
From the earliest stages of his career, Lichtenstein was something of a polymath and produced works using a wide range of media. From canvases to works on paper and even works which incorporated Plexiglas, Lichtenstein was an accomplished practitioner in whichever medium he choose. With Crying Girl, Lichtenstein chose enamel, a medium with a noble tradition that dates back centuries, but also one which perfectly suited his crisp Pop aesthetic. Lichtenstein’s decision to execute the work in this particular medium also acts as a precursor to his adoption of sculpture, which became an increasingly important part of his later career. He was beginning to recognize the importance of different mediums in helping him to achieve the clean aesthetic that eschewed all signs of the artist’s hand. By combining the use of a steel support with crisp enamel, Lichtenstein has chosen the perfect medium to replicate the smooth surface of a mirror. As the curator Diane Waldman has observed, “With enamel, Lichtenstein accomplished two objectives: he reinforced the look of mechanical perfection that paint could only simulate but not duplicate and it provided the perfect opportunity to make an ephemeral form concrete” (D. Waldman, quoted in Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1971, p. 23). One of the relatively few enamel works from this pioneering period of his career, Crying Girl was produced in an edition of five, with one of the edition being housed in the permanent collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum in Wisconsin.
However, what was most important to Lichtenstein above all else, were the formal properties of his paintings and the sense of “visual unity”, or “perceptual organization” he could attain with an image. In order to achieve a tightly unified composition with a commanding presence, he would detach himself from the content of the picture and concentrate on its form. His second wife Dorothy would later explain: “...when Roy worked, he would start with a very strong image, but once he decided what he was going to paint, he would try to get beyond the image to look at it as marks on a canvas--to look at it from as much of an abstract perspective as possible so that he wouldn’t just be reproducing a picture of something. That’s why before he even started in the so-called Pop art style, he designed an easel that rotated. This way he could work on a painting sideways and upside down. And he usually worked with a mirror in the background to get as much distance from the canvas as possible, so he could see it as a whole and in reverse. He was very interested in form and style” (D. Lichtenstein quoted in J. Koons, ‘Conversation’, Women, exh. cat., New York, 2008, p.10).
Lichtenstein’s choice of images and his reductive style obscured his intentions in a way that made the paintings both accessible to the general public and irritating to critics who viewed him as a philistine. But it was this tension between style and subject matter that was the foundation of his practice. He chose comics as they were culturally low and emotionally hot and transformed them into something culturally high and emotionally cool. “At that time,” Lichtenstein recalled, “I was interested in anything I could use as a subject that was emotionally strong – usually love, war, or something that was highly charged and emotional subject matter to be opposite to the removed and deliberate painting techniques. Cartooning itself usually consists of very highly charged subject matter carried out in standard, obvious, and removed techniques” (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in J. Coplands, ed., Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1972, p. 89). Lichtenstein certainly found in this material a potential for the dispassionate portrayal of exaggerated emotion. The paradox of his work has always remained that its outward embrace of quotidian imagery belies an inward concern for art as arrangements of colors and shapes. It is as if he has taken Mondrian’s emphasis on the inherent flatness of the picture plane and combined it with the concept of the Duchamp readymade. But instead of producing something dry and cerebral he has created a painting that is sensual, ironically witty, and full of energy.
Paintings such as Roy Lichtenstein’s Crying Girl are among the most recognizable images in Pop. On the surface, the subject is the ultimate teenage fantasy; girls identified with her and boys wanted to be with her. With his arsenal of bold lines, Ben-Day dots and striking color, the artist produces an image which depicts, reinforces yet also begins to dissect the dominance of American popular culture during the postwar years. With these deceptively simple signifiers, Lichtenstein conjures up an image of drama and intrigue; an image that poses as many questions as it answers and seeks to query how we understand our increasingly visual world, subverting the universal language that helped to codify it.