Breathtaking in the scope of its referential vernacular and meticulously rendered with virtuosic dexterity, Figures aligns numerous elements from Lichtenstein’s own oeuvre alongside a rich compendium of art historical references, culminating in a captivating homage to art of the past. Within the enigmatic desert of the present composition, abstract biomorphic figures and irregular geometric forms coexist alongside one another in an imaginative vista that recalls the metaphysical landscapes of Salvador Dalí and Giorgio de Chirico. Invoking numerous motifs familiar from Lichtenstein’s earlier masterworks - mirrors, perforated blocks of Swiss cheese, wood grain blocks, puzzle pieces, shells, and snakelike ropes - elements are here rearranged in unexpected ways and reintroduced in the present composition with intriguingly opaque meanings. The composition is framed and anchored by two opposing forms: a precariously balanced fractured mirror and a wood grain block. Positioned opposite one another, the irregular fractured shards of the broken mirror and jagged contours of the woodblock puzzle piece take on an anthropomorphic quality and resemble abstracted profiles in silhouette facing each other as if engaged in conversation. Distinctly recalling René Magritte’s famous and enigmatic portrait The Conqueror, in which a woodblock shape replaces the head of a man, and also invoking Lichtenstein’s own earlier portraits in which mirrors and Swiss cheese slices hover suspended above men’s shirts in place of faces, these strange, abstracted forms assume a figural quality in the mysterious context of the present dreamscape. A motif repeatedly taken up by Lichtenstein throughout his career for its endless visual and conceptual complexity, the fractured mirror inventively modernizes of one of the most salient and enduring dialogues with art and illusion. Particularly fascinated by the abstract way that cartoonists use simple diagonal lines to denote reflective surfaces and create a conventional shorthand for a complex natural phenomena, Lichtenstein here assumes the challenge of visually articulating the illusionistic space of a reflected mirror in two-dimensional form.
Situated far off on the horizon line, a pointed sculptural element commands the viewer’s attention; equally vibrant in color and commanding in scale as the elements in the foreground, this perplexing triangular element underscores the dramatic foreshortening of space and destabilizing absence of perspectival depth characteristic of Lichtenstein’s Surrealist landscapes. With its irregularly arranged triangular elements, this form is a clear precursor to Lichtenstein's Perfect / Imperfect paintings of the 1980s, a series that represents his most judicious and sustained foray into total abstraction. While seemingly lacking any referential signifier, the inspiration for this perplexing triangular form came from the comic book The Flash, in which a superhero character emits a force field which is graphically conveyed by overlapping planes of color and intersecting lines. As with his mirror motif, Lichtenstein here reveals his fascination with the capacity to visually convey complex ideas or phenomena - in this case the dynamic, thrumming energy of an invisible force field - into an easily digestible and reproducible image. Also referencing the aesthetic purity and precision of the early modernists, this triangular construct recalls the compositions of Giorgio de Chirico, El Lissitzky, and Piet Mondrian.
Rendered in vibrant yellow, red, blue, and green hues offset by crisp blacks and whites, Figures revels in the sharply defined gestures and bold use of color elicited by Lichtenstein’s precise graphic Pop sophistication. Foreshadowing his increasing tendency beginning in the late 1970s and into the 1980s to embrace greater experimentation in his compositions, Lichtenstein incorporates into the present work greater variation in pattern and color to convey the complexity of his subject matter. Each irresistibly intriguing representational element of Figures suggests a multiplicity of referential meanings, drawing the viewer ever closer in his or her desire to enter the bewitchingly chromatic realm of Lichtenstein’s vibrant masterpiece. Seamlessly fusing a dazzling amalgamation of art historical tropes with slyly concealed allusions to his own oeuvre, Figures is an emphatic testament to Lichtenstein’s own astute summation: "All my art is, in some way, about other art." (Roy Lichtenstein quoted in Janis Hendrickson, Roy Lichtenstein, Cologne, 2000) Describing the indisputable ingenuity of this limited series, Diane Waldman notes: "In his distillation, Lichtenstein brought his gamesmanship into play, merging prototypical subjects from any one of the major Surrealists with the outstanding images of another and conflating them with images drawn from his own earlier work… [In] his Surrealist paintings, he unleashed a more fanciful aspect of his nature, layering one wild form on top of another and creating a panoply of imagery that he intertwined with forms from his previous work." (Diane Waldman in Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Roy Lichtenstein, 1994, pp. 243-251)
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