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Roy Lichtenstein in conversation with John Coplans in: Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1972, p. 52
“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
Executed in 1964 at the height of Roy Lichtenstein’s career, Vicki! I -- I Thought I Heard Your Voice! is a quintessential evocation of the artist’s celebrated Pop vernacular that comes from the artist’s body of Girls paintings. Rendered in porcelain enamel on steel, the painting exemplifies Lichtenstein’s bold, punchy palette and seductive subject matter which draws its content from cartoon comic strips. Depicting, as in the present work, out-of-context moments of high drama on a magnified scale, Lichtenstein fabricates compelling narratives, at once alluring and elusive, that elevate the status of comic strips from popular culture to high art. In the present work, Lichtenstein has portrayed the archetypal blonde heroine: her large, almond-shaped eyes, framed by thick, lustrous lashes, gaze out towards the viewer; her red lips form a perfect pout. She is flanked between the edges of a doorway and the contours of a man who, with his face turned from the viewer, blocks her exit with his raised left hand. Conveying sensational emotion, Lichtenstein’s protagonist Vicki possesses an extraordinary magnetism with her radiant blonde locks, sumptuous red lips, and enigmatic facial expression. The work is punctuated by the artist’s signature exclamatory speech bubble, which, hovering above the two characters, seems to emerge from the male speaker and serves to heighten the grand theatre of the spectacle. Conjuring emotion through both text and riveting body language, Lichtenstein’s painting is imbued with an extraordinary efficacy.
In Vicki! I -- I Thought I Heard Your Voice!, the viewer is granted visual access to the woman, however we are denied a full view by the intermediary of the male speaker. Thus, the viewer becomes locked in a tantalising interplay that teeters between attraction and the tension of irrevocable distance. The imagery of the present work was appropriated from two readymade frames from a comic strip that Lichtenstein composited and moulded to his will, making a number of crucial adjustments to alter not only the composition, but also to transform fundamentally the character of his portrait and the emotional import of the image. Indeed, a close comparison to these source images reveals the remarkable significance of Lichtenstein’s subtle yet critical editing process. Not only does Lichtenstein’s heroine convey a sense of pathos as she furrows her eyebrows toward the male visitor at her door, but her painted lips are parted as if she is about to respond to the man’s exclamation: she is suspended forever in mid-thought, leaving the viewer free to interpret the next frame to his or her desire. With her open mouth and large, mournful eyes, she entrances the male – who comes to represent the viewer-come-voyeur – with her beguiling temptation. Intriguing and mysterious, she demands our attention and seduces our gaze, ultimately becoming the consummate muse of both artist and viewer. Physically trapped by the anonymous man holding the doorway, she comes to personify the societal objectification of women through the confining male gaze. As Diane Waldman notes, "In isolating the female figure from her original context, Lichtenstein further magnifies society's codification of women as ornaments, positioned for the male gaze only" (Diane Waldman in: Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (and travelling), Roy Lichtenstein, 1993, p. 117).
Lichtenstein's Girls stand as undisputed icons of post-war American art. Few other works, either by Lichtenstein himself or his contemporaries, subvert the heroic ideals of modern abstract painting so directly and successfully. In boldly challenging what constitutes ‘high’ art versus ‘low’ culture, and in questioning the distinction between fine art destined for museums as opposed to commercial advertising and media imagery that pervades our daily lives, Lichtenstein's Girls continue to fuel one of the most contentious and theoretical dialogues in contemporary art today. The alluring fantasy of the blonde heroine of the American 1950s and ’60s fuelled entire industries and drove billions of sales. Alfred Hitchcock populated his classic movie thrillers with a cast of divine blonde actresses – Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, and Kim Novak – who played the part of the gorgeous, sassy protagonist who would invariably be swept off their feet and rescued by Cary Grant or James Stewart. It was a role which would later be poignantly parodied for its restrictive typecasting in Cindy Sherman’s satirical body of Untitled Film Stills (1977-80). Regarding the Girls series, Lichtenstein’s wife Dorothy once stated: "I think that he was portraying his idea of the dream girl" (Dorothy Lichtenstein in conversation with Jeff Koons in: Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Lichtenstein: Girls, 2008, p. 15). For the viewer, the compelling attraction of Vicki! I -- I Thought I Heard Your Voice! certainly also belongs to the world of fanciful reverie. Informed by the intoxicating dreams and desires of cinematic fantasy and comic book fiction, Vicki’s character incites in its viewer a potent and emotive reaction. The composition’s sharp, simplified forms, as much as its flattened and foreshortened perspectival space, simultaneously recall modes of consumer advertising, and strengthen formal principles and pictorial conventions native to early Modernism. Moreover, Lichtenstein's eponymous Ben-Day dots are meticulously executed, instilling the work with a kinetic dynamism that in turn invests a powerful sense of tension in the gestural motion of the man’s hand on the door-frame, perfectly encircling the woman’s tilted head.
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 culture in 1960s America. With his enamel on steel paintings, Lichtenstein harnessed the undercurrent of mass reproduction central to his comic book works by utilising their very modes of mechanical production. By so doing, he revolutionised how we perceive the world around us and how, in turn, the world has subsequently been presented back unto itself. Rendering the present work on an enamel plate, Lichtenstein was inspired by the industrial signage of New York City, adding a further layer of complexity to the readymade nature of his image. As explained by Waldman: “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). Where his great art historical counterpart Andy Warhol had 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, in the same moment, brought his paintings closer to a veritable authenticity, in which the terms of their manufacture are laid entirely bare to the viewer. Scintillating and seductive, Vicki! I -- I Thought I Heard Your Voice! encapsulates Lichtenstein’s pioneering pictorial syntax.
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