As is archetypal of the artist’s most resonant masterworks, Wall Explosion III harnesses the inherent power of culturally pervasive signs and symbols to reference and evoke elements of contemporary society with striking clarity. Lichtenstein achieved significant critical acclaim in the 1950s and early 1960s when he assertively challenged the preeminent aesthetic priorities and core artistic ambitions which his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries held paramount. Though intentionally universal in their imagery, content, and legibility, Lichtenstein’s comic paintings of the early 1960s—in particular, those that address war through highly idealized narrative structures— represent a pivotal moment in the artist’s practice when he began to tackle new subject matter, leaving behind the mundane to address some of the most pressing issues from the world around him. Describing this period within the artist’s work, scholar Paul Schimmel explains, “Lichtenstein’s works of the early 1960s exhibit a keen interest in action. He paints about process and not with it…The early cartoon paintings of romance and war are ‘action packed’ with water, wind, and explosions. Seeing these works…provides an insight into this critical period of transition in his work.” (Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art (and travelling), Hand-Painted Pop: American Art in Transition 1955-62, 1993, p. 46) Reflecting upon the particular appeal of imagery sourced from comic-books, Lichtenstein himself noted, “All that time 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. Also, I wanted the 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.” (Graham Bader, Hall of Mirrors: Roy Lichtenstein and the Face of Painting in the 1960s, Cambridge, 2010, p. 97) Presented in the context of mid-1960s America, a period defined by heighted anxiety in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis and ever-growing tensions in Vietnam, Lichtenstein’s paintings and subsequent sculptures of comic-book based war scenes allowed the artist to consider emotionally charged subject matter within the Pop vernacular, effectively addressing some of the most anxiety-producing associations of his time head-on. In their engagement with issues of international conflict, these works also retain a sly autobiographical undercurrent: initially enlisting in the army in 1943, Lichtenstein began his combat operations in France in 1945, continuing tactical operations in Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland before returning home to Fort Dix in 1946. Informing, if not inspiring, such renowned paintings as Mr. Bellamy, 1961, Live Ammo (Take Cover), 1962, and Whaam!, 1963, these comic-book depictions of war capture a cultural moment particular to the 1960s, subtly infusing the subjective significance of his seemingly objective scenes with charged meaning.
Although Lichtenstein’s signature renderings of comic-book explosions appear as early as Blam from1962 in the permanent collection of the Yale University Art Gallery, it wasn't until 1965 that the artist began to explore the aesthetic possibilities of the shape in its own right. As Diane Waldman noted, "Lichtenstein's sculpture is an extension of his painting. 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." (Diane Waldman, Roy Lichtenstein, New York 1971, p. 23) Describing the impetus behind his sculptural works, Lichtenstein succinctly noted, "I was interested in putting two-dimensional symbols on a three-dimensional object." (John Coplans, Roy Lichtenstein, 1967, p. 16) Bold in ambition and scale, in the present work Lichtenstein has extracted a fragment of highly dynamic imagery and brilliantly flattened it with the utmost sophistication, rendering only its most fundamental and basic formal qualities before inviting his blast back into the three-dimensional space it originally inhabited. Rendered in the highly simplified color palette of red, yellow, blue, and white, the bold lines of Lichtenstein’s sculpture are imbued with a distinctly feverish energy, pushing its impact beyond the clean lines, primary colors, and simple shapes which define the present work from a formal perspective. The sharp, simplified clarity of the sculpture, combined with the foreshortened perspectival space, powerfully evoke the two-dimensional nature of the artist’s source material while, simultaneously, introducing his signature motif into an entirely new dimension. In the precision of its crisp steel shapes, thick black outlines, and solid fields of saturated color, Lichtenstein infuses his rendering of a split-second combustion with an air of mechanical perpetuity into; in turn, his eponymous Ben-Day dots, perfectly regimented and crisply delineated, invest the sculpture with a volatile sense of tension. Portrayed so exuberantly and vibrantly that the viewer cannot help but expect a resounding KABOOOM! mere moments later, Wall Explosion III is an entirely captivating crystallization of the themes which fueled, informed, and defined Lichtenstein’s most groundbreaking and iconic masterworks.
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