Lot 9
  • 9

Roy Lichtenstein

4,000,000 - 6,000,000 USD
3,890,500 USD
bidding is closed


  • Roy Lichtenstein
  • Study for New York State Mural (Town and Country)
  • signed and dated 68 on the reverse
  • oil and Magna on canvas


Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC# 508, titled Study for Modern Painting of New York State)
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1968

Catalogue Note

Roy Lichtenstein was not merely an artist, he was an innovator; a magician, able to catapult mass-produced commercial images into the realm of Fine Art. Known for his comic strip-sourced canvases, primary colors and Benday dots, Lichtenstein worked from a pictorial vocabulary wedded to modes of mechanical reproduction. Although it was executed with the same simplified color scheme and graphic formalities, Study for a New York State Mural (Town and Country) demonstrates a break from Lichtenstein's trademark comic-book iconography of the early 1960s. The work, originally designed for a proposed large-scale mural for the Empire State Plaza Art Commission, exemplifies a transition in Lichtenstein's style, a shift in focus from the world of comics to that of geometry and architecture. 1967 and a new series entitled Modern Paintings marked the beginning of this new phase, characterized by a strong Art Deco influence and geometric division of space. Study for a New York State Mural (Town and Country) still displays Lichtenstein's illustrious Benday dots and simplified linearity but now these features are complimented by grand arcs, forceful diagonals and jutting stripes. This new interest in the complexities of space and the possibilities for layering, compartmentalizing and breaking up the picture plane illustrate a strong Cubist tendency. Not only is Lichtenstein reducing forms and figures to their most elemental components but his disruptive geometric compositions and vibrant patterning can be seen as a contemporary interpretation on the work of the greats of the early 20th Century such as Fernand Léger and Pablo Picasso. Fascinated with a wide variety of Modernist ideologies, Lichtenstein's work also incorporated bold designs from the Art Deco ornamentation that adorned the New York skyscrapers of the late 1920s and early 1930s, a common theme in his work from this period.

The Empire State Plaza Art Collection was one of Nelson D. Rockefeller's most ambitious goals as governor of New York and followed in the tradition of his family's philanthropic heritage and his own endeavors in projects such as Lincoln Center. A monumental art and architecture project, Rockefeller and the appointed Commission aimed to transform Albany into an internationally recognized political and cultural center. Relying on utopian visions and American idealism, the great American art patron believed that democracy and commerce in conjunction with the arts could lead to prosperity. To compliment the construction of numerous governmental structures arrayed around a new grand plaza of trees and reflecting pools, Rockefeller purchased ninety-two works of modern art for both indoor and outdoor placement, many on a monumental scale. Thus, as the proposal for a mural for the New York State Legislative Office Building, Study for a New York State Mural (Town and Country) is a work about progress and the capabilities of New York and its country as a whole. It speaks to Manhattan's 1930s architectural boom when skyscrapers began racing towards the clouds, to its importance as a port entrance to the nation, to revolutions in industry, and to America's majestic landscapes. Although the project was proposed for the state of New York, its impetus was America's rising status in the postwar world.

As the title suggests, the iconography in Study for New York State Mural (Town and Country) reflects preoccupations with both the man-made and the natural world. Lichtenstein depicts abstracted images of ocean liners and soaring buildings and juxtaposes them with fragments of bright green leaves and a setting sun, one of the most iconic images in his oeuvre. The splinters of smoke-stacks and Art Deco skyscrapers reference the explosive technological achievements responsible for the progress of the nation. Because The Empire State Plaza Commission was executed in the wake of America's race to space, these allusions are especially appropriate. Lichtenstein contrasts this industrial vernacular with the lush greenery of the New York landscape, harking back to the plunging valleys and endless skies that so fascinated the earlier Hudson River school painters and the American Luminists. In the top right corner, the sun is either rising or setting; its beaming rays streaking across the sky behind stylized birds. This quadrant is reminiscent of Sinking Sun (1964), one of the most masterful pieces in the Lichtenstein oeuvre of early Pop paintings. Bold in both ambition and scale, the painting was known for being classically American in its hope and nostalgia, an icon of the cultural landscape from which it originated.

As a hybrid of both the comic-inspired works and the Modern Paintings series, Study for New York State Mural (Town and Country) represents quintessential Americana. The American fascination with pop culture and thus, the graphic novel is as deeply rooted in our collective history as the Industrial Revolution and urban expansion. In both series, Lichtenstein's work remained ideologically steadfast. "I was very excited about and interested in the highly emotional content yet detached, impersonal handling of love, hate, war etc., in these cartoon images... It is an intensification, a stylistic intensification of the excitement which the subject matter has for me; but the style is, as you say, cool. One of the things a cartoon does is to express violent emotion and passion in a completely mechanical and removed style". (interview with G. R. Swenson cited in Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery,Roy Lichtenstein, 1968, p. 9) Indeed, remaining true to the fundamental paradox between style and subject which describes his work, Lichtenstein described the spirit of his nation in the same formally detached, mechanical manner he used for his painting technique. He had simply moved on to apply it to a different set of symbols, associations, and perspectives integral to the American experience. In both cases, the irony in his work facilitates a rendering in which the subject does not become an actual portrayal but a stereotype. The images in Study for New York State Mural (Town and Country) become almost allegories, a set of truisms that Americans hold dear. These stereotypes are indelibly ingrained into a shared public consciousness so that we readily recognize their symbols just as the beholder instantly recognizes the drama of the romantic or war encounters in the artist's earlier strips. By reducing all extraneous pictorial detail and traces of narrative to an absolute minimum he created a monolithic image, so monumental as to be almost universal in its dichotomy between rural and urban.