'...Roy adored women... He may even have picked these women because he was so reserved in his own being that this was his way of latching on to the emotional highs and lows of life' (D. Lichtenstein, quoted in J. Koons, 'Conversation,' M. Francis & S. Ratibor (eds.), Lichtenstein: Girls, exh.cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York 2008, p. 11).
Executed in a kaleidoscope of rich colours, with this near life size image of a brazen naked young woman caught in the sanctity of her bathroom, Roy Lichtenstein returns to the genre that established him as one of the most progressive artists of his generation. Reflections on Jessica Helms combines this return to the female figure with the continuation of his rigorous examination into the formal nature of painting that he began in the 1980s. The seductive nature of the woman's curvaceous body positioned against the formal regularity of the tiled bathroom is a resounding example of his signature painting; a style which mimicked the aesthetic of the mass-market comic books of his youth, whilst at the same time providing a rigorous investigation into the nature of representation. The precision of Lichtenstein's technique, complimented by a diverse range of bold pigments and subtle hues, demonstrates the artist's mastery of the codes and cyphers that we have amassed within our mass-media culture as a shortcut to visual comprehension. In the span of ten years between 1980 and 1990 Lichtenstein retreated from the full-on representation of the female body and Reflections on Jessica Helms marks his triumphal return to the potent mixture of colour and form that is encapsulated in the sensual contours of the female body.
Set against the strict rigidity of a grid pattern that replicates the tile wall intrinsic to most bathrooms, the curvaceous nature of the female's body is enhanced by the Ben-Day dots that the artist used to denote volume and mass. Although the woman's modesty is obscured by a trio of diagonal bands, the sense of sexuality is palpable. A tantalizing flash of cherry red lip is visible along the upper edge of the painting just as tussles of blond hair cascade over her bare shoulders only to disappear behind the censorial bands that lie across the composition. These are not the vulnerable girls that Lichtenstein painted in the 1960s; his nude figures from the 1990s have benefitted from the social advances that his earlier girls were struggling to come to terms with. Unlike these earlier Girl paintings (whose subjects still looked to 'Brad' or 'Jeff' to make their lives complete) the figure in Reflections on Jessica Helms is an independent woman and happy to acknowledge her body and the power it has over men, 'The 1990s nudes take pleasure in their own company, without the slightest hint of needing or missing a man. They are not paralyzed by their emotions. In contrast to Lichtenstein's original romance-comic pictures, this world flourishes exuberantly without men or engagement rings or kisses. The older norm didn't disappear, but needed to be adjusted. Even as he updated the stereotypes of erotic fantasies, Lichtenstein wove them into the consistent narrative of his own carrier' (A. Berman, 'Joy and Bravura and Irreverence' Roy Lichtenstein and Images of Women,' in Roy Lichtenstein-Classic of the New, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Bregenz, Vienna 2005, p. 143).
The three wide bands that run diagonally across the surface of the work recall Lichtenstein's earlier Mirrors series from the 1970s. As well as protecting the modesty of Jessica Helms, they appear to be reflecting back to the viewer the world in which we are standing. This simulated reflection is a conceit Lichtenstein started using in the Mirror series from 1969-1970 where he produced works based on advertisements for mirrors in retail catalogues. Depicting a blank reflection, the Mirror works are among the artist's most abstract. Stripping down his subject matter, Lichtenstein used the series to concentrate on the formal aspects of painting and to study the various magnifications of light and optical distortion of shapes on the mirrors surface: 'it enable[d] him to unleash a new range of inventive bravura, a heightened exploitation of spatial effects, and a new freedom in suggesting illusion' (E. Baker, 'The Glass of Fashion and the Mold of Form' in J. Coplans, (ed.), Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1972, p. 179).
Although Jessica Helms is a fictitious character, her name references that of Jesse Helms, the Senator from North Carolina and a leading proponent of art censorship. Helms is most famous for his battle with the National Endowment for the Arts battle in the late 1980s over what he saw as their support of blasphemous and pornographic art. As such, this painting could be seen as a wry comment on notions of morality and censorship, indicated through his employment of a nude figure, here in her shower, who keeps her modesty through three bars of reflections shooting across the canvas.
Reflections on Jessica Helms is a culmination of the artist's lifelong preoccupation with the fiction of representation. Lichtenstein's calculated adaptations of cartoon images are a reminder that the simple surface of things does not necessarily correspond to or 'reflect' a complex reality. In addition to his characteristic replication of the Ben Day dot system used by printers, Lichtenstein's method of splicing the composition with reflective streaks further dematerialises his subject matter, flattening it into the picture plane. By combining this sense of reflection with a suggestive narrative, in Reflections on Jessica Helms Lichtenstein highlights the fact that his painting is made up only of dots and lines to which it is impossible to resist applying meaning.