Puzzled Portrait from 1978 is a testament to Roy Lichtenstein’s enduring engagement with the nature of art in the contemporary era, both as a major figure in the American Pop Art movement and as a painter who explored the art of the past in order to elevate the art of his times. In the 1960s, Lichtenstein garnered fame for his appropriations of comics, advertising and other forms of ‘low’ art, placing them into the ‘high’ art context of the gallery and museum. In these prototypical Pop Art masterpieces, Lichtenstein reproduced the language of graphic and commercial art with his use of bold outlines and vivid colors to depict form in a flattened picture plane. This unique style, utilized in the service of depicting common-place figures and objects, was the beginning of his ultimate subject: art about art. Avant-garde and modernist movements earlier in the century had decried traditional genres such as nudes and still-lifes. Yet as the decades passed, the dialectic between the subjects of art and the techniques of art persisted and was nowhere more thoroughly explored than in Lichtenstein’s oeuvre. In a continuous aesthetic dialogue with the pre-war generation of European masters, he made use of past genres to produce innovative and radical contemporary art.
Picasso had engaged with the works of Rembrandt and Delacroix, while Warhol had reconfigured masterpieces by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci. Lichtenstein, for his part, systematically deconstructed and then reconstructed twentieth century masterpieces, and between 1974 and 1980, devoted his attention to specific aesthetic movements as creative points of departure which in turn reinvigorated basic motifs of his visual lexicon. The dynamics of Futurism, with its sweeping movement and forms; the brushwork of German Expressionism with its intensely chromatic frontality; the intellectual polish of Surrealism with its dreamlike landscapes and figures; and the abstracted and disassembled forms of Cubism - all were translated by Lichtenstein into his own idiosyncratic vocabulary. As the artist commented, “I’d rather use the term 'dealing with' than 'parody.' I’m sure there are certain aspects of irony, but I get really involved in making the paintings when I’m working on them, and I think just to make parodies or to be ironic about something in the past is much too much of a joke for that to carry your work as a work of art.” (Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, “Eight Statements”, Art in America, 64/4, July/August, p. 175) Indeed, the simple power of his graphic technique lends Lichtenstein’s modernist works a fresh vitality, as if, through him, their voices can be heard once more.
Puzzled Portrait from 1978 emerges from this important period of creativity and depicts one of Lichtenstein’s signature blondes, who has departed from the role of 1960s narrative heroine and entered into a Surrealist realm of fractured figuration and enigmatic context. Lichtenstein’s engagement with Surrealism seems a rather curious one: his work was rational and ordered, and the breaking down of form and the elasticity of meaning in Surrealism seemed anathema to the logic of Lichtenstein. Even so, he reveled in the flowing, sinuous form and bold colors characteristic of Surrealism, but maintained an order and control through his strong sense of line, pattern and design. As is typical of Lichtenstein's best work, Puzzled Portrait is wonderfully graphic and boldly declarative, yet still evokes the power of the Surrealist dogma. Interior logic is dislocated through facial features and figuration that are random and disconnected, at once enlivening Lichtenstein’s signature motif: the female blonde.
The annals of art history overflow with famous images of Woman as Muse, and for over five decades, the weeping, dewy-eyed, frightened or sleeping women in Lichtenstein’s masterpieces have remained in our collective consciousness. It is fitting that the subject of his greatest investigations into the nature of art is the female symbol and that she would proliferate throughout his oeuvre. Puzzled Portrait is a tour-de-force as an archetype of Lichtenstein’s blonde American symbol of womanhood, ironically sourced from the regions of print commercialism and rendered into the exalted realm of fine art. In her many guises, from disembodied head animated by a transfixing central eye to a linear and featureless profile, the female of Puzzled Portrait is the primary agent of Lichtenstein’s explorations into artistic precedents.
Fernand Léger’s Divers (Blue and Black) from 1942 is the most cogent precedent to Puzzled Portrait, and points to Léger’s identification as one of the forerunners of Pop Art. His depiction of everyday subjects and figures presented in a simplified manner defined his personal style of abstraction. Spurred on by sojourns to America in the 1930s and 1940s, his more complex Cubist work gave way to Divers (Blue and Black) and other paintings that captured Léger’s concepts of 'figures in space.’ Organically rendered figures and body parts hover in an indeterminate environment, imbued with formal clarity through Leger’s use of bold contours and planar color. Léger wrote in 1945 that "the object in modern painting must become the main character and overthrow the subject. If, in turn, the human form becomes an object, it can considerably liberate possibilities for the modern artist." (the artist in “The Human Body Considered as an Object” in Edward Fry, ed., Functions of Painting by Fernand Léger, New York, 1973) In Puzzled Portrait, the female figure is a compositional liberation for Lichtenstein, and his black contours and the arcing band of white are forces of rhythmic interplay that recall the bold bands of color in Divers (Blue and Black).
Picasso is unquestionably an inspiration in Roy Lichtenstein’s art, and he eventually painted several masterpieces reinterpreting Picasso paintings. Picasso would remain a touchstone for Lichtenstein as a focus for his explorations of aesthetic quandaries: the conventions of painting, the role of subject in art and finally, the functions of line, color and spatial depth that were being challenged from all sides by iconoclastic modern theories. The affinity between these two artists had a common motif in the depiction of the female, and in Picasso’s case, the likenesses of his wives and lovers often fueled the metamorphoses of his creative output. Each of the women, particularly Olga Khokhlova, Marie-Thérèse Walter and Dora Maar, were catalysts for Picasso’s creativity, and represent the inspired evolution of a new pictorial language as his passions became encoded within each figure. Comparisons of Puzzled Portrait and Picasso’s work abound, beginning with the multiple perspectives of the woman’s visage presented to the viewer. With confident bravura, both artists are masters of elegantly reductive compositions of great power, exuding clarity of form and organic color.
The trajectory of Lichtenstein’s oeuvre demonstrates that his primary artistic concern throughout was the concept of art itself. In this regard, Puzzled Portrait both references his earlier 1960s paintings as well as paintings of previous generations. His idea of making ‘art about art’ was not new when he painted Puzzled Portrait, however, the paintings of the late 1970s are more complex in technique and concept. Diane Waldman notes, “[Lichtenstein] showed a concern with style as a distinctive issue in painting quite apart from a work’s subject. In many ways this issue became even more charged when Lichtenstein introduced his first comic-strip and consumer-product paintings in 1961, pointedly emphasizing the difference between their genre subject and a high-art style. In these and in the paintings that followed, he has continued to demonstrate an abiding interest in questions of art’s meaning, form, content, and style.” (Exh. Cat., New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (and travelling), Roy Lichtenstein, 1993, p. 237)
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