John Wilmerding, “Roy Lichtenstein’s Still Lifes: Conversations with Art History” in Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein: Still Lifes, 2010, p. 9
With its bold palette and stark composition, Two Apples from 1981 is a consummate example of Roy Lichtenstein’s ever-evolving and inquisitive exploration of art-making, perfectly encapsulating the artist’s ingenious ability to create art that addresses itself. Lichtenstein’s artistic practice, partly reacting against and emerging from the shadow of Abstract Expressionism, came to define the core basis of Pop Art. The present work, created at the peak of Lichtenstein’s revolutionary and imaginative career, encapsulates Pop Art at its most refined and self-aware.
Lichtenstein maintained that he was interested largely in the abstract qualities of his art, and in Two Apples, that penchant for achieving abstraction within a figurative composition is clear. The entirety of the canvas is covered in strategically placed and sparingly used, brazen comic book brushstrokes that swish across the picture plane to convey color and light. A viewer knows the composition well. It is a familiar still life—the yellow apple in the foreground rests perfectly in front of the lazily reclining red apple behind it. The scene is set in an indiscriminate room with one, lonely window and both fruits cast a dark shadow. Here Lichtenstein draws an obvious parallel to the modern still life—particularly the apple-filled still lifes of Paul Cézanne. “Pop Art was a realistic art, as Lichtenstein himself confirmed when he stated that ‘I think art since Cézanne has become extremely romantic and unrealistic…it’s utopian. It has had less and less to do with the world…outside. It’s a world; it’s there…Pop art looks out into the world’” (Gianni Mercurio, Roy Lichtenstein Mediations on Art, Milan 2010, p. 39). The artist reimagines the still life in his arresting style; Lichtenstein’s scintillating use of negative space coupled with the dynamic motion of the swooshing strokes together creates a composition that looks out into the world and embraces “Pop’s assertion that is was an art addressing itself to the world it embodied” (ibid., p. 39).
Not only does the present work ‘address the world it embodies’ but it also is cleverly self-referential alluding in many ways to Lichtenstein’s own artistic career. Two Apples relates to the artist’s Brushstroke paintings from 1965-1966, his 1970s series of Pop reimagined paintings by masters such as Cézanne and Picasso, as well as his cliché still lifes of the decade. Here, Lichtenstein brilliantly incorporates his corpus by sharpening and elevating his critique of not only Abstract Expressionism but also still life genre painting by modern masters. In Two Apples, Lichtenstein transcends Pop with a decidedly Postmodern display. As Gianni Mercurio writes, “By deploying an image created by others and using it as his own, he introduced the concept of appropriation into art: Andy Warhol was to follow in the same direction some years later. This concept practically implicates presenting a copy of an already existing image as one’s own. All those who considered the artist’s studio as a favored space for shaping the new or for innovating—all the better if it was something shocking—considered heretical the act of re-proposing an image that already existed (and, for the most part, was well-known). However, the concept of copying, which is to be traced back to Lichtenstein and constitutes one of later Postmodernism’s cardinal points, did not represent for Lichtenstein (nor for Warhol) an attempt to depart from Modernism” (ibid., p. 39).
Through a cursory look at Lichtenstein’s artistic career it appears that the link throughout is not thematic but stylistic. However, through deeper contemplation it becomes apparent that the underpinning of his practice and what unites his early canvases with those executed during the apex of his career, is a resolute dedication to creating impactful work that subtly questions and critiques the history of art-making. Engaging in its stark and impressive composition, Two Apples proudly displays the terms of its own making and exhibits Lichtenstein’s most fascinating focus of attention—art itself.
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