As is archetypal of the artist’s most resonant paintings, Lichtenstein’s The Ring (Engagement) oscillates between the high emotive content of the rhapsodic imagery and the detached, readymade nature of his borrowed mass-reproduced comic-book imagery. In the artist’s own words, “I was very excited about, and interested in, the highly emotional content yet detached, impersonal handling of love, hate, war, etc., in those cartoon images.” (the artist cited in an interview with John Coplans, Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1972, p. 52) With sharp focus and a clear acuity for such simplified modernist precepts as line, color, and shape, Lichtenstein’s The Ring (Engagement) harnesses the affective power of culturally pervasive signs and symbols by means of the highly generalized imagery that acts as its communicative agent. Though intentionally universal in their imagery, content, and legibility, Lichtenstein’s comic paintings of the early 1960s retain a sly autobiographical undercurrent; the subjective significance of his seemingly objective, impersonal signs resonate with highly charged meaning. Lichtenstein turned to comic-book depictions of war concurrent with his love paintings, drawing on his personal experiences in the U.S. army—after entering service in 1943, the artist began his combat operations in France in 1945, continuing tactical operations in Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland before returning home to Fort Dix in 1946 after learning his father had fallen ill. If his participation in the war inspired such renowned paintings as Mr. Bellamy (1961), Bratatat! (1962), Live Ammo (Take Cover) (1962), and Whaam! (1963), it is logical to deduce that his love pictures of the same time period were similarly informed by a private dimension of his life. Paintings of romance such as Masterpiece (1962) and M-Maybe (1965) make specific reference to painters through the narrative lens of his female protagonists—heroines who either fawn over the genius of their artist lovers or distress over the painter’s occupation in the studio and subsequent romantic absence.
By the winter of 1962, Lichtenstein and his wife had permanently separated. In 1949, the twenty-six year old Lichtenstein had married Isabel Wilson, with whom he had two sons, born in 1954 and 1956. When the family moved to New Jersey in the summer of 1961, Isabel was suffering from alcohol abuse that impaired their relationship, and in the fall of that year, Lichtenstein instigated a trial separation. The next year, the artist moved into a loft in downtown Manhattan with Letty Lou Eisenhauer, a graduate student and part-time Art Department secretary that he met while negotiating his divorce. The Ring (Engagement) captures this doubling of emotion: the painting at the same time satirizes the social conventions and rituals of love as inoculated by the commercial media, while embracing a universal desire for affection. The time of this painting’s production marks the end of one marriage while coinciding with the buoyant beginnings of new love, encapsulating the complexity of emotion that Lichtenstein imbues in the image. Bradford R. Collins noted, “A contextual analysis of the comic book paintings suggests that their themes presented [Lichtenstein] with an opportunity to play out subconsciously a series of satisfying fantasies, which apparently helped him to cope psychologically with the hopes and disappointments of this tumultuous time…. Looking at these paintings, it is difficult not to recall one’s own adolescent expectations about romance. Few among us ever completely give up on the dream of perfect love…” (Bradford R. Collins, "Modern Romance: Lichtenstein’s Comic Book Paintings," American Art 17, no. 2, Summer 2003, p. 62) 1962—the year he painted the present work—was also the year of his first solo show at the Leo Castelli Gallery (which sold out before it even opened), a breakthrough that cemented his long quest for success. Thus created in one of the most emotionally charged, turbulent, and transitional periods in his life, some of the expressive power of The Ring (Engagement) can be located in the artist’s own projections toward the future during the time it was painted—engaging in the dichotomous attraction and rejection of socially normalized standards of love.
Lichtenstein’s The Ring (Engagement) triggers associations surrounding love, ritual, and happiness that reveal a uniformity of social experience—in causing the viewer to realize his or her own associations profoundly wrapped up with such imagery, we come to understand the deep potency that this recognizable, but otherwise contextually displaced, iconography holds. More omnipresent than the war paintings from the same moment of Lichtenstein’s production, his pictures about love resonate with attainable realities rather than unfeasible fantasies. Human relationships and the prospect of marriage are more relatable than piloting a fighter jet, yet what is so powerful here is that Lichtenstein leavens this moment with the same explosive fantasy as in paintings like Whaam! (1963) and Varoom! (1963). In fact, The Ring (Engagement) preceded these blast paintings, suggesting that this pictorial device of outbreak and detonation originated in the privacy of human relationship; as exemplified by the painting Kiss III also from 1962, which employed the same expressive red rays emanating from a central moment of embrace.
In The Ring (Engagement), Lichtenstein probed a defining stereotype of our culture: the moment of engagement as the ultimate expression of true love. By dislocating it from any contextual framework as though splicing up a comic book, Lichtenstein removed the frame from its relation to the rest of the story. This distortion and magnification in scale here elevates the moment of engagement and the symbolism of the ring to the status of sign, compelling and effective in raising universal connotations without any surrounding narrative structure. Without any specificity of time, person, or place, the image swiftly becomes generalized, and thus universal. The Ring (Engagement) is particularly phenomenal for its abstracted image devoid of text, which allows for greater narrative interpretation—without the speech bubble that appears in many other of Lichtenstein’s paintings from this period, Lichtenstein opened the door for a wide raft of interpretation that is not governed by authorial intent, but rather, by receptive understanding. Removing a comic strip from its relation to other frames of the narrative abstracts the frame and seals the image as a singular stereotype of our culture. Heightening the image’s vast complexity, the artist therefore expanded the reading of the painting in both its celebrative and cynical significations, thereby adopting the very ambiguity and oscillation of meaning that both dictates the human condition and in particular defined Lichtenstein’s romantic life at the start of the 1960s.
Roy Lichtenstein instinctively understood the phenomenal potential of popular imagery, and more than any artist of his generation realigned the cipher of that imagery to unveil verities behind the ever-proliferating pictorial panorama of contemporary culture in 1960s America. By so doing he revolutionized how we perceive the world around us and how, in turn, the world has subsequently been presented back unto itself. Where his great art historical counterpart Andy Warhol directly appropriated quotidian images to force issues of perception through the simple act of re-presentation, Lichtenstein's genius lay in a more subtle yet equally radical transformation. Having mastered the primary modus of industrial pictographic transmission, by almost covert means he enlisted this mass-media vocabulary to present alternate perspectives onto ideal realities. Through this methodology he shone a brilliant light on the artifice of our image-saturated society, and yet, simultaneously, he also brought his paintings closer to a veritable authenticity, for the terms of their manufacture are laid entirely bare to the viewer. In his early comic paintings from the 1960s, Lichtenstein proved himself a realist of the postwar period, in the same manner that in nineteenth century France, Gustave Courbet rejected the academic conventions of his predecessors and committed to painting only what he could see. What Lichtenstein saw, in the postwar period, were predominantly images of desire dictated by the media.
In the late 1950s, television sets entered nearly every living room in America, irrevocably shaping the cultural consciousness: in 1949, about one million sets were in use, and by the end of the 1950s, more than fifty million televisions had gained a stronghold in American homes. Amplifying the pervasiveness of the mass media, the introduction of the television enforced an augmented reality driven by highly composed imagery, tightly regulated messages, and universal instantaneity. As the media increasingly constructed how we viewed the world, symbols of ritual idealism such as marriage and professional success became branded and universalized, packaging innate human desires through consumable images and acquirable realities. Turning to commercial source material, Lichtenstein’s Benday dot technique harnessed the impersonal artifice of such mass-reproduced imagery in order to convey highly emotional, charged subject matter, thereby emphasizing the very clichés that underpin the mainstream media. As Otto Hahn described, “His cool detachment creates a shock, produces an interplay, an overturning between the truth of the mechanical artifice and the falsity of the emotion—between the truth of the emotion and the falseness of its translation into image. Artifice and dream, image and language, this is what Lichtenstein speaks of, giving them a monumental grandeur which refers back to the human condition. He presents a purified and structured fact: This is how men dream and how they speak of their dreams. Love, glory, victory, force, comfort, art, travel, objects—such are the dreams that are unfolded in the papers and these dreams speak...” (Otto Hahn, "Roy Lichtenstein," in John Coplans, ed., Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1972, p. 143) Lichtenstein’s pictorial economy and brusque simplification renders emotion in the most direct and conventional way, making explicit the stereotyped impersonality that is necessary for the image to be universal to the human condition and thus, retain the most affective potential.
1962 was the apogee of Lichtenstein's comic strip paintings, the series that propelled the artist to international fame. Lichtenstein was not merely an artist; he was an innovator, able to catapult mass-produced commercial images into the realm of fine art. His innate gift for editing 'found' images and subsequent presentation so as to capture the telling gesture of an emotive moment defines the Pop leader's profoundly insightful understanding of the nature of perception. Many of Lichtenstein’s early paintings are composed of heavily cropped hands in isolation, dynamically gestured in their performance of various tasks—this formal propensity is expressed perhaps nowhere as sexily or appealingly as in The Ring (Engagement). Tightly cropping the image and focusing on the very action at the center created images with heightened intensity and emphatic force, all the while maintaining the elemental primary nature of generalized signs and symbols. Lichtenstein abstracted action, foregrounding the hands and the central ring without any narrative context; as John Coplans suggested, “This paring away of the unessential led Lichtenstein to a sharper confrontation with the outside world, to a wider range and sharper focus in his use of stereotype… It is not that Lichtenstein avoids painting the whole figure because it is too complex but, rather, that the whole figure is too specific, too anecdotal for his purpose. Too much detail weakens the focus and the power of the image to immediately and recognizably signal the desired content. Thus, Lichtenstein crops away until he gets to the irreducible minimum and compresses into the format the exact cliché he desires to expose. Lichtenstein’s technique is similar to his imagery: He reduces his form and color to the simplest possible elements in order to make an extremely complex statement. In short, he uses a reductive imagery and a reductive technique for their sign-carrying potential.” (John Coplans, Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1972, p. 23)
For Lichtenstein, whose painterly strategies over the course of his work were often concerned with the interrogation of his art historical precedents, the foregrounding of hands in motion can be read as a response to the overwhelming influence of Abstract Expressionism. Following his comic-inspired reproductions of masterpieces by Cézanne, Mondrian, and Picasso, Lichtenstein made paintings of precisely drawn cartoon brushstrokes, enlarged and exaggerated as a sardonic comment on the heroic, gestural handling of paint that epitomized the Abstract Expressionists. Here, Lichtenstein satirically confronts the legacy of gesture by drawing attention to the seeming lack of hand in the precise, photo-mechanical Ben-Day Dot while simultaneously enlarging and positioning two single hands as the primary content of the painting. Paul Schimmel explained, “In a perverse way, 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 in the context of Lichtenstein’s years of ‘desperate’ struggle with an imitation of action painting provides an insight into this critical period of transition in his work.” (Paul Schimmel in Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art (and travelling), Hand-Painted Pop: American Art in Transition 1955-62, 1993, p. 46) As The Ring (Engagement) is indeed centered around explosive action, magnified by the rays emanating away from the ring being placed on a manicured finger, this early painting represents a decisive point in Lichtenstein’s questioning of popular modes of art-making from previous generations. With the present work, Lichtenstein initiated a critical move away from the hegemonic forms of Abstract Expressionism, dominated by the macho, toward a more incisive Pop Art.
In 1961, Lichtenstein began to employ his trademark Ben-Day dot technique, appropriating the commercial printing style for comic books and print advertisements where closely spaced dots coalesce into a greater image. Hand-painting through the use of a screened metal stencil each individual dot that comprises the two hands of The Ring (Engagement), Lichtenstein’s technical virtuosity here is on grand display. The highly simplified color palette of red, white, black, and yellow coupled with the procedure mimicking newspaper printing imbued his paintings with an ostensibly impersonal, anonymous style. With the precision of his colored dots, thick black outlines, and solid fields of brilliant red, Lichtenstein endeavored to make his carefully considered hand-made process appear as mechanical as possible. Paradoxically, Lichtenstein strived toward the crudest forms of illustration to efface the presence of his hand all the while devoting himself to an intensive process of production. The sharp, simplified clarity of the composition of The Ring, as well as its flattened and foreshortened perspectival space, recall modes of consumer advertising, while strengthening formal principles and pictorial conventions native to early Modernism. The eponymous Ben-Day dots are perfectly regimented to create a kinetic dynamism that in turn invests a powerful sense of tension in the gestural motion of the two hands. Moreover, in enlarging the hands of his source material, Lichtenstein emphasized the banal, abstract artificiality of the comic strips and advertisements that served as his inspiration, as opposed to the realism that they purported to convey. Lichtenstein sought to achieve an impersonal aesthetic that appears to conceal the subjectivity of the personal experience and expression that clearly informed the painting’s creation. Expressing an extraordinarily emotive moment in his archetypally dispassionate painting technique epitomizes the artist’s complex juxtaposition of powerful imagery with Pop clarity.
What is particularly compelling about The Ring (Engagement) is the subtle eroticism that charges through the disembodied hands arrested in mid-air; although the fragmented and isolated body parts appear depersonalized and universalized, Graham Bader stressed that “its iconographic rhetoric is repeatedly one of heightened, often extreme bodily sensation… We practically feel the tactile charge of 1962’s The Ring, the radiating pattern of which directs all attention to an impending act of penetration, or 1961’s Popeye, whose schematic lines communicate the bodily impact of a just-passed moment of aggression… Lichtenstein himself, for all his stated disinterest in iconography, repeatedly stressed the central importance of such paintings’ simultaneous draining and eroticization of the human body. As he told Gene Swenson in 1963, he chose to work from comics precisely for their ability ‘to express violent emotion and passion in a completely mechanical and removed style,’ an ability he sought to mimic in his own practice: ‘I was interested in anything… that was emotionally strong—usually love, war, or something that was highly charged and … opposite to the removed and deliberate painting techniques.’” (Graham Bader, Hall of Mirrors: Roy Lichtenstein and the Face of Painting in the 1960s, Cambridge, 2010, p. 97) The passionate vitality emanating from the focal climax at the center of the composition is thrillingly juxtaposed with the stark, proto-mechanical mode in which Lichtenstein painted the image. Thereby, Lichtenstein’s painting acquires a different energy—one that is suggestive of a close human charge that serves only to heighten the sensory drama and visceral reaction conjured by the image.
Furthermore, the potent magnetic force that hovers in the center of the composition between the two hands calls to mind Michelangelo’s depiction of The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel. If in Michelangelo’s painting, God reaches to touch Adam and confer life upon him with the energy from the meeting of their fingers, Lichtenstein seems to suggest with his image the social perception of man carrying a similar emphatic power in his capacity to anoint woman with the symbolic ring. Honing the media’s perception of womanhood in 1950s America, Lichtenstein commented on the social power that engagement brings for the woman, as ceaselessly suggested by the cartoons and advertisements whose imagery Lichtenstein purloined—aspirational comics such as “Young Romance,” “Brides in Love,” and “Secrets of Young Brides.” With his signature sardonic bent, Lichtenstein brought to the fore an iconographic parallel between man’s conferring status on a woman to God’s gift of life, creating an image that reverberates with the same astonishing graphic energy as the Sistine Chapel. In its spectacular allure, The Ring (Engagement) represents a crucial point in the artist’s life and career, rife with a multivalent stratum of interpretation and significance. With the painting’s simply radiant intensity and cinematic vitality, Lichtenstein ensured that the only answer to his proposal is an unequivocal yes.
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