NEW YORK - On November 1st, Sotheby’s Prints sold Roy Lichtenstein’s understated etching On (Corlett 32) from 1962 for a record $37,500. As one of my favorite prints in the sale, it is a piece from which to build a strong collection of Pop art. The print depicts not only a seminal moment in art history but also a pivotal point in the artist’s career.

Roy Lichtenstein’s On (Corlett 32), 1962.

Against the backdrop of American post-war prosperity, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg challenged the hegemony of post-war culture with intentionally ugly artworks that blatantly subverted patriotism and mass-consumerism. Two that come immediately to mind are Flag III and Painted Bronze, both from 1960.  

Jasper Johns’s Flag III (ULAE 7), 1960.       

Meanwhile, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were also engaging with the ephemera of American daily life, though from an entirely different perspective. Far from satirically critiquing American post-war culture, Pop artists embraced and even celebrated images of American consumerism. The new consumer products that pervaded the American consciousness – comic books, Campbell's Soup Cans, celebrity culture and road signs (Robert Indiana) – fed new possibilities of pictorial representation that simultaneously continued Marcel Duchamp’s legacy of raising found objects to the status of high art while democratizing such works by allowing viewers to easily identify with images from mainstream popular culture.

Roy Lichtenstein’s Crying Girl (C. II.1), 1963.

Roy Lichtenstein’s On, which precedes his iconic comic book imagery, lands squarely between the bitingly critical and celebratory strains of Pop art. On the surface, On is a picture of a light switch. Distilling the composition into its component parts – the rectangular wall mount, two circular screws and a complex series of squares and rectangles indicating the switch itself – reveals the picture’s geometric simplicity and the influence of Mondrian, whom Lichtenstein reinterpreted in Modern Print (C. 103). However, the subdued tones of the print’s brown paper and steely-gray lines recall the rough, unfinished character of Johns’ Flag III (above).

Congratulations to the American private collector who acquired On!