Painted in 1972, Still Life with Stretcher, Mirror, Bowl of Fruit shows Roy Lichtenstein turning his idiosyncratic style back upon himself and upon his own home and life. In this still life, the artist appears to be inspecting his own home, perhaps inviting the viewer to indulge in what, one assumes, is supposed to be a privileged glimpse of life behind the easel. Gone is the POW! WHAM! BRATATATA!, replaced by something that appears far more intimate...
And yet, as is always the case with Lichtenstein, nothing is as simple as it initially seems. For is this really the artist's home? Is this a composite still life made to appear like the still life paintings of other artists? Is the intense foreshortening of the table meant to evoke the French master-colourist Henri Matisse? Certainly, several of Lichtenstein's other paintings from this period plundered Matisse's works and the objects within them in a highly piratical manner, resulting in composite Lichtenstein-does-Matisse pictures that referred to no single specific work. As the artist himself pointed out, '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).
This strange balancing act, or rather the tension that Lichtenstein extracted from crashing together the worlds of so-called 'high' and 'low' art, was a staple feature in his work. Lichtenstein had became famous because of his paintings of comic strips, which took traditionally 'low art' sources and rendered them meticulously in oils on canvas, thereby granting them a mini-apotheosis, granting them access to the hallowed halls of high culture. The process had in fact begun even earlier, when he had made deliberately wry false Abstract Expressionist images, using the visual language of Action Painting in order to render subjects such as Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse-- subjects that contrasted with and therefore punctured the pomp and machismo of the very movement whose appearance these pictures mimicked and mocked. By the 1970s, Lichtenstein's style of painting had become iconic enough that he could approach the same formula from a different angle. Now, he took the everyday and he took so-called 'high art' and he rendered them through the clinical, faux-print style that he had developed. In Still Life with Stretcher, Mirror, Bowl of Fruit, the Lichtenstein torch has been pointed at what appears to be an inobtrusive corner of the artist's domestic existence. This humble corner features a mirror, the back of a painting, a curtain, a table, fruit, cup and saucer. These, surely, are the modest accoutrements of Lichtenstein's own life? The artist has effectively invited us into his home.
Lichtenstein's imagery, which stylistically owes so much to advertising and publishing, thrusts the various objects into a bold and zingy superreality. This is not just a mirror, it is the mirror! This is not just a bowl of fruit, it is the quintessential bowl of fruit! These objects have been reduced to a shorthand that allows the viewer's mind to fill the gaps. We relate these various elements to those that we ourselves have known, adding a strange layer of intensive and subjective reality to this seemingly objective rendition, hence Lichtenstein's own words that, 'It doesn't look like a painting of something, it looks like the thing itself' (Lichtenstein, quoted in ibid., p. 68). Lichtenstein explained this process at more length in interview with David Sylvester:
'I'm interested in the kind of image in the same way that one would develop a classical form, an ideal head for instance. Some people don't really believe in this any more, but that was the idea, in a way, of classical work: ideal figures of people and godlike people. Well, the same thing has been developed in cartoons. It's not called classical, it's called a cliché. Well, I'm interested in my work's redeveloping these classical ways, except that it's not classical, it's like a cartoon.
'I'm interested because of the impact it has when you look at it, not because it does anything formally. As a matter of fact, it's really contradictory to form, it's a restriction on form. I mean, you have to take into account something else while you're forming this painting. The hair, the eyes, whatever it is, have to be symbols which it's sort of funny to say this are eternal in this way. In realising of course that they're not eternal' (Lichtenstein, quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London 2002, pp. 226-27).
In this way, Lichtenstein's shorthand images of banana, mirror (with dots instead of a reflection!) take on a strange authority. They become classic. And in this way they invade our minds and make us relate each element to those in our own worlds as well as those recorded in a corner of Lichtenstein's abode.
This interest in interpretation, this manipulation of lines and dots in order to evoke something that is almost timeless, reflect Lichtenstein's interest in the actual mechanics of perception. This was a legacy of his teacher and mentor at Ohio State University, Professor Hoyt L. Sherman, who expounded his theories as to the distance between appearance and understanding in his lectures. He was a keen investigator of the ways in which the eye perceives colour, distance, shape and form. This was a legacy that Lichtenstein turned to new effect in his paintings. In a sense, Still Life with Stretcher, Mirror, Bowl of Fruit is deliberately abstract and opaque. It is a configuration of lines, dots and colours. And yet regardless of intention, we cannot help but 'read' the image, a reflex that Lichtenstein plays upon. Discussing the various elements in his paintings and the fact that they are so clear and legible, Lichtenstein said:
'This is a picture of a girl, that is a picture of a light cord and it becomes an easily identifiable thing, but this kind of portrayal is so unreal when compared with the actual object. This is something that interests me, plus the fact that these portrayals are taken for real. I mean in the same way that a frankfurter looks nothing like the cartoon of it-- there are no black lines, dots, or white highlights on the original. In the picture the form becomes a purely decorative frankfurter. It becomes very exaggerated, a very compelling symbol that has almost nothing to do with the original. It has partly to do with the economics of printing, partly to do with the gross vision of the artist. It is very compelling for reasons that have nothing to do with art' (Lichtenstein in 1967, quoted in J. Coplans, 'Roy Lichtenstein: an interview', pp. 11-13 in Roy Lichtenstein, exh. cat., London 1968, p. 12).
In this way, much of Lichtenstein's work investigates a similar territory to Magritte's La trahison des images, which showed a pipe with, underneath it, the words: 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe.' Still Life with Stretcher, Mirror, Bowl of Fruit takes this even further by introducing self-referential pitfalls within its own universe. For the viewer cannot possibly know whether the cynically reproduced objects within this vignette of Lichtensteinworld are mirror, stretcher and so forth or whether they are in fact paintings and of those objects littering his place representations within a representation. Still Life with Stretcher, Mirror, Bowl of Fruit, then, lures the viewer into feeling secure before a seemingly innocuous and simple painting, yet is a trap, an ambush designed to make us look at art with renewed scrutiny.