Galerie Beyeler, Basel
Fischer Fine Art, London
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Roy Lichtenstein, 1973, no. 25, illustrated in colour
“I use colour in the same way as line. I want it over simplified- anything that could be vaguely red becomes red. It is mock insensitivity. Actual colour adjustment is achieved through manipulation of size, shape and juxtaposition.” (Artist cited in Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein, 1968, p. 12)
Monumentally oversized and glowing with the exquisite simplicity of its harmonious shape, form and colour, Still Life with Candy Jar represents one of the artist’s most iconic images from the early 1970s. Building upon his earliest still-lifes of the early 1960s in which he had focused upon simple, consumerist objects like Tires and Jewels, (fig. 1), here Lichtenstein tackles a more complex arrangement of traditional objects and with it notions of authorship and composition in art. Although painstakingly rendered in Lichtenstein’s distinctively flat hand, so emphatically removed of all expressive detail or brushwork, here he reasserts his control over the composition through the placement of objects and choice of bold colour. Executed with the most minimal means and using incredible draughtsmanship and skill, Lichtenstein has here rendered each element, such as the extraordinary cut-glass of the candy jar, in a completely convincing manner so that its minimal simplicity carries enormous perceptive weight.
We are witness to a mini retrospective of Lichtenstein's distinctive ‘Pop’ vision. Synthesising the aesthetic and technical characteristics from his cartoon, landscape and mirror series with the illustrious tradition of still-life painting, Lichtenstein here moves effortlessly from the 'low' culture influences of his early years to a subject which is steeped with a long history of academic interpretation. Devoid of detail and extraneous ornament, here Lichtenstein tackles the artifice of subjectivity and objectivity in art, in an act of personal appropriation which pre-dates the movement of the same name.
Through a process of reductive compositional analysis and careful manipulation, Roy Lichtenstein’s oeuvre exposes the paradoxes of style and subject in art and modern society. Having explored the inventory of American contemporary culture during the 1960s through the language of consumerism and advertising, Lichtenstein’s work of the 1970s saw the artist commenting upon another familiar product of American advertising – great works of art. Like his earlier cartoon-based paintings which ironically questioned the traditional relationship of the artist to his subject through the appropriation of conventionally low-art forms, here Lichtenstein’s artificial idealism of style and subject challenges the dynamics of art’s most conventional and traditional genre - the still-life composition.
The evolution of the Still-Life composition has provided one of the most enduring and fascinating stories of art. Man's relationship with the objects around him has always offered the key to his existence and the philosophical associations which have accompanied the paintings have generally reflected the times in which they were made. From the Roman kitchens which were frescoed with trompe-l'oeil produce to the start of Christianity, when still-life paintings took on a metaphysical importance and were filled with symbolic interpretation which often served to preach, chastise and evangelise, to the “moral” painting of the 19th century "Vanitas" tradition, Still-life has always meant more than the sum of its contents. In the 20th Century however, an era when the teachings of Nietzsche challenged the traditional sacred role of art, Italian artists such as De Chirico, Carrà and Morandi formed a small group called "Pittura Metafisica" (The Metaphysical Picture). By placing objects in unlikely contexts, the Metaphysical painters aimed to create a dream-like, magical atmosphere, replacing the religious, moral symbols of traditional painting with images and symbols of a more commercial and agnostic epoch. Like the surrealist works of his predecessors, Lichtenstein’s Pop Art refers to the values of his own age; where religious and ‘moral’ values have grown subordinate to commercial, superficial ones - an era of American promotional advertising. Thus, Still Life with Candy Jar is both an unabashed celebration and a scathing critique of popular culture.
Indeed, the reduction of the surface, space and 'realism' from the masters of 17th century Dutch Still-life to Cezanne and then Cubism has also described the destiny of Modern Art. In the 20th Century age of mass mechanical reproduction, the reference for painters became no longer necessarily the real objects, but the more readily available reproductions of all forms. The kinds of illusions and compressions of space that reproductions create throws open a whole new area of interpretation. The progression of the still-life throughout the 20th century gradually found a flattening of space and simplification of form and in fact Lichtenstein frequently compared his compositions of the 70s and 80s to those of abstract artists such as Frank Stella or Ellsworth Kelly – artists whose paintings are entirely about the relationship of shape and colour, without any modulation or shading which could be read as atmosphere. “Even if my work looks like it depicts something, it's essentially a flat two-dimensional image, an object." (the artist cited in Michael Kimmelman, Portraits, Talking with artists at the Met, The Modern, The Louvre and Elsewhere, New York 1998)
The opticality of the black and white plane which describes the table on which the objects sit relives the assaulting intensity of Bridget Riley's work whilst balancing the vertical division of the background. As with Lichtenstein's best work, we are drawn into the relationship between style and subject. With its primary colours and arid surfaces, the uncommon visual strength of Lichtenstein’s vocabulary here mounts a visual challenges to the conventional refinement of line, colour, texture and plane. Carefully selecting his visual sources to induce the maximum pictorial flatness, the black outlines and unyieldingly smooth paint surface cling to a single, insistently two-dimensional plane as Lichtenstein brutally compresses illusory depth and any sense of volume. The image sees the compelling tension between the abstract autonomy of compositional flatness and the resulting distortion of forms.
This calculatingly composed scene enhances Lichtenstein’s signature vocabulary of sharply stylised, silhouetted forms and bold colour contrasts as un-modulated fruit shapes and background colour fields are balanced against the graphically complicated candy jar and opticality of the foreground. Although there is no sense of personal ownership or sentimental value here given to any part of the composition, the exquisite level of detail Lichtenstein devotes to the glass jar affords a mocking acknowledgement of the hierarchical subjectivity of still-life painting. Thus through the simplest and most beautiful of renditions, Lichtenstein has developed an image of intensely complex association with his forefathers which brings a new critical facility to minimal and pop painting. This is the mark of great art.
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