Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC# 481)
Mr. and Mrs. Horace Solomon, New York (acquired in 1967)
Renée Lachowsky, Brussels
Acquired by the present owner from the above circa 1975
New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein, October - November 1967
In 1967, Roy Lichtenstein embarked on a series titled Modern Paintings, including the present work, Modern Painting with Fishes. Most often, the paintings focused on one object or design element, possessing titles such as Modern Painting with Bolt, Modern Painting with Target and Modern Painting with Steps, rarely incorporating a human or living element into these works. Intensely geometric and focused on a single inanimate object or form, Lichtenstein’s primary enterprise with this series was the adoption of a reduced, simplified and more pure composition.
The early 1960s saw Lichtenstein deeply engaged with the figurative and narrative, using comic books as his source for subject matter in paintings which initially led to his fame as one of the pioneers of Pop Art. As Lawrence Alloway stated, “These works are followed by the Modern paintings; in some ways they are unlike one another, but in other ways they are linked. The free-form irregularity of the one turns into the geometric regularity of the other” (Lawrence Alloway, Lichtenstein, New York, 1983, p. 39). The Modern works are clearly a break from his former artistic practice of the Romance and War comics, sharing more in common perhaps with the French Cubist artist Fernand Leger in their compartmentalization of space and geometry. However, signature characteristics of his Pop Art technique, such as the Benday dots and his extraordinary gift for edited details, remain equally evident in the Modern Paintings.
The Modern paintings were heavily inspired by Art Deco style, emphasizing geometric ornamentation taken from both architecture and design to adorn the canvas surface. Encompassing circles, triangles, stripes and rectangles, often in groups of three, these shapes created a subdivided and layered space, confined to and existing within the square plane of the canvas. Lichtenstein’s sources included American and European design magazines and books such as 52 Ways to Modernize Main Street with Glass. Interestingly, Lichtenstein was using these forms “before Art Deco has been revived as the term for these period geometrics, a reminder of his prescience” (ibid., p. 37).
Modern Painting with Fishes stands as one of Lichtenstein’s most iconic and playful paintings from this dynamic series. Beginning with an earlier study of the present work, Lichtenstein carefully tested his composition, segmenting his space and using primary colors of yellow and blue. Finely sketched and well composed, the drawing is a fully realized jewel in itself, and reveals signs of Lichtenstein’s thought process. Exhibiting the same geometric forms, the quality of acrylic and magna creates a more substantial presence and presents the original design in bolder, more emphasized form. The colors, of which there are only four (yellow, blue, black and white) are solid flat colors with no variation in tone, relating back to the ‘primary’. Lichtenstein’s characteristic Benday dots create a backdrop curtain of blue and black, almost simulating waves through playful optical tricks created by the small dots when spaced so closely together. The fish emerge as the most prominent elements in the composition, executed in a strong and vibrant yellow outlined by a thick and heavy black line. Circular forms seem to be the basis for this composition, overlapping each other and intersected by the dynamic wave-like bolt of double diagonal lines that segregates the overall picture into two triangles. Obviously inspired from Art Deco design, the diagonal wavy lines resemble 1930s jewelry and the solid black circular form of the largest fish fans out behind, serving almost like a period accessory.
True to most of Lichtenstein’s Modern paintings, Modern Painting with Fishes emphasizes structure but incorporates the playful and living element of the fish, a somewhat unusual inclusion in these works. A brilliant conception, Modern Painting with Fishes is at once a pinnacle example of the series, unique in its subject yet truly indebted to Art Deco. As Alloway concludes, “These paintings take the populist, commercial style of the 1930s – the Art Deco of ocean liners, theater foyers, and enameled jewelry – as a source of form in opposition to the simplifying lines of a more respected design. Lichtenstein has linked these works to Minimal sculpture, but they are opposite: this is Radio City Music Hall, not the Bauhaus.’’ (ibid., p. 40)
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