NEW YORK - During the months leading up to the May auctions, a few Sotheby’s contemporary-art experts found themselves reading not only the usual art-historical texts but also devouring American romance comics from the 1950s. Such research is all in a day’s work when the picture in question is Roy Lichtenstein’s The Ring (Engagement), the Pop artist’s dazzling 1962 painting based on a single comic-book frame.
PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECTION OF STEFAN T. EDLIS, ROY LICHTENSTEIN’S THE RING (ENGAGEMENT), 1962. (ESTIMATE UPON REQUEST). © ESTATE OF ROY LICHTENSTEIN.
Of all the oil paintings Lichtenstein based on war and romance comics in the early 1960s, The Ring (Engagement) is one of the largest, most powerful – and, in a bittersweet, paradoxical way – the most personal. Stretching nearly six feet wide, the picture zooms in on two tightly cropped hands, captured at a climactic moment: He’s about to slip the ring on her finger. The romantic and erotically charged exchange hits its crescendo against a burst of radiating circles, coloured the same deep red as the future bride’s nail lacquer. The abstract background makes the Pop painting pop. “A proposal recast as an explosion,” is how Sotheby’s Contemporary Art specialist Michael Macaulay describes it. “An iconic moment in many peoples’ lives, reduced to an essence.”
In many ways, Lichtenstein was a famously unrevealing artist. His smooth, flat surfaces hide evidence of his technique, the fastidious hand-painting he used to conjure the illusion of commercial printing techniques, like his signature Benday dots and thick black outlines. His works don’t often present clues about his personal life or internal moods. And of all his comic romance paintings, The Ring (Engagement) is one of the most spare. There are no faces, no dialogue, no narrative. The omission is deliberate: “It would have been very easy for him to put not necessarily a bubble, but a text box,” says Macaulay. “When there’s text, you’re encouraged to see these in a very specific way.”
By 1962, when Lichtenstein painted The Ring (Engagement), he was almost 40. Like his fellow rising Pop stars Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist, he had gained a following for his cheeky appropriations of low-culture formats like advertising and comics, definitively pushing American art out of the heroic Abstract Expressionist era into the swinging 1960s.
The love-struck protagonists in Lichtenstein’s paintings were the darlings of the contemporary art world, whose own fantasies and idols were mirrored back with a knowing wink. In Masterpiece, another classic 1962 painting adapted from romance comics, the object of affection is a rugged, self-assured and somewhat smug-looking artist depicted with an admiring young woman. “Why Brad darling,” his blond companion exclaims. “My, soon you’ll have all of New York clamoring for your work!” The same year, before Lichtenstein’s first solo show at Leo Castelli gallery in New York had even opened, it sold out. And the artist launched a brazen new series uniting high and low, in the form of his comic-book style homages to such modern masters as Cézanne and Mondrian.
In his personal life, Lichtenstein faced different challenges. His marriage to Isabel Wilson, the painter he had married in 1949, was ending. He was in a new romance with Letty Lou Eisenhauer, a graduate student, and was living away from his sons.
This is the moment he chose to depict an idealised proposal as a big boom. Apotheosis or apocalypse? Marriage or mirage?
“I don’t think it’s an essentially cynical painting,” says Macaulay. “It’s a slightly cynical, enlightening and perceptive take. I think looking at it that way makes it a much more interesting work.”
The Ring’s high-art ancestry adds yet more layers of meaning. The gesture’s distinct resemblance to Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam has inspired one line of inquiry among art historians, particularly for what the echo might imply about Lichtenstein’s approach to marriage. The moment of contact in both Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling and Lichtenstein’s American Pop rendering depicts a “validation of existence, a life-giving,” Macaulay suggests. “Maybe a woman wasn’t anything without a ring” in those days.
Attitudes toward marriage have changed since 1962, but Lichtenstein’s monumental treatment of a stereotypical magic moment retains its power to stop viewers in their tracks. “What I love about this painting is that there really isn’t a single prism to view it through,” Macaulay says. “It’s multivalent. It carries something for every viewer in a very powerful way.”
Robin Cembalest is a journalist and editorial strategist in New York.
Roy Lichtenstein’s The Ring (Engagement) will be on view in New York from 1–5 and 8–12 May. Auction 12 May. Enquiries +1 212 606 7254.