- Roy Lichtenstein
- Female Head
- signed and dated 77 on the reverse
- oil and Magna on canvas
Acquired by the present owner from the above in November 1977
Tokyo, Seibu Museum of Art; and Kurashiki City, Ohara Museum of Art, Roy Lichtenstein 1970-1980, April - July 1983, p. 106, illustrated
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art; Montreal, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; Munich, Haus der Kunst; Hamburg, Deichtorhallen; and Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Roy Lichtenstein, October 1993 - September 1995, p. 248, no. 193, illustrated in color
Bregenz, Kunsthaus Bregenz, Roy Lichtenstein - Classic of the New, June - September 2005, p. 121, illustrated in color
New York, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Roy Lichtenstein: Conversations with Surrealism, Paintings, October - November 2005, pp. 46-47, illustrated in color
(James Rondeau and Sheena Wagstaff, “Introduction,” in Exh. Cat., Art Institute of Chicago, Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, 2012, p. 20)
A dazzling vision of exquisite beauty and peerless formal execution, Female Head represents the ultimate crescendo of Roy Lichtenstein’s pioneering investigation into the form, content, and meaning of Contemporary Art. Fixing on the viewer with a sidelong glance that is both irresistibly seductive and utterly elusive, the breathtaking subject of the present work embodies the ultimate crystallization of Lichtenstein’s enduring engagement with the most iconic of his subjects: the female head. Here, she is freed from the prosaic confines of the traditional Pop narrative to be reimagined as the beguiling muse of the Modernist masters. Just months after it was painted in 1977, Female Head was acquired from the Leo Castelli Gallery by the late Michael M. Rea and Elizabeth R. Rea, passionate collectors and noted patrons of the arts, and has remained in their collection for four decades. Elizabeth Richebourg Rea, an accomplished fine-art photographer, began her professional career at The Museum of Modern Art as director of the Art Lending and Art Advisory departments and was subsequently hired by Roy Lichtenstein’s primary dealer Leo Castelli, where she honed her artistic eye and acquired extensive knowledge of the artist’s work. Her accumulative knowledge and experience led to her role as free-lance curator for two major retrospectives of the work of Roy Lichtenstein. She was catalogue editor for the 1987 Museum of Modern Art exhibition The Drawings of Roy Lichtenstein; and research consultant for the 1993 exhibition Roy Lichtenstein organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum with travelling venues to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
A paragon of the artist’s celebrated Surrealist paintings, Female Head is joined by examples from the series in the New York collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark, among others. Even within this rarified group, however, the present work is a masterpiece of unparalleled formal elegance and conceptual sophistication: fracturing and reconfiguring three distinct profiles within a single portrait—two mirrored faces, shadowed by a third silhouette enigmatically disguised as a flowing lock of blonde hair—Female Head fuses the diverse vernaculars of Cubism, Surrealism, and Pop in a captivating dialogue between masterpieces both past and present.
Utterly breathtaking in the scope of its references, Female Head articulates the central tenets of Lichtenstein’s quintessential vernacular with unparalleled pictorial exuberance and graphic charge. Although rendered through the kaleidoscopic prism of Modernism, the cascading golden tresses of Lichtenstein’s signature blonde invoke the familiar bombshells of his Pop masterworks of the 1960s: a fitting figurehead for the artist’s freshly initiated exploration of new stylistic frontiers. Gleaned from the pages of comic books and advertisements, Lichtenstein’s Girls appear in his oeuvre as early as Girl with Ball of 1961, held in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, only to reappear in such disparate guises as the distressed damsel of Drowning Girl and the domestic temptress of Girl in Bath throughout the course of the 1960s. Undisputed icons of postwar American art, Lichtenstein’s Girls exemplify the explicit tension at the very core of the artist’s practice: an irreconcilable distinction between the quotidian imagery of popular culture and the refined cultural paradigm of fine art. Remarking upon the significance of these women within the artist’s oeuvre, his wife, Dorothy Lichtenstein, comments, "I think that he was portraying his idea of the dream girl." (Dorothy Lichtenstein in conversation with Jeff Koons in Exh. Cat, New York, Gagosian Gallery, Lichtenstein: Girls, 2008, p. 15) In Female Head, Lichtenstein’s archetypal female undergoes a radical stylistic transformation, departing from her role as the heroine of fictional and comic narrative to be reintroduced in a fantastical Surrealist dreamscape of compositional fragmentation and abstracted symbolism. While articulated in the illusionistic vocabulary of Twentieth Century Modernism, however, the seductive curves of the partially obscured yellow silhouette winding sinuously down the length of the canvas recall the shadows of Lichtenstein’s iconic Brushstroke paintings. Indeed, appearing in the very first of Lichtenstein’s Surrealist paintings, Female Figure of 1977, the abstracted mane of blonde locks becomes a central and signature motif of the Surrealist series. Likewise, the fractured mirror, which appears to both reflect and project the binary portrait before us, references both the canonical use of mirrors throughout art history and the artist’s own frequent use of mirrors as compositional elements in his earlier paintings; offering an updated articulation of the roles of vision and perception within art, here, Lichtenstein’s mirror serves to fracture the image, while simultaneously articulating the artist’s own backward glance at artistic precedent. Describing the fascinating destabilization achieved by his absorption of his own trademark graphic style, Lichtenstein reflects, “They were of no particular Surrealist artist, just Surrealism in general. I took certain elements from painting I have done in the past: a man’s suit, a shirt and tie from a dry cleaning ad, the Brushstroke ... These works are something like the Artist’s Studio paintings in that they are large compositions that include various images from various periods.” (Roy Lichtenstein, “A Review of My Work Since 1961,” 1995, quoted in Exh. Cat., Milan, Roy Lichtenstein: Meditations on Art, 2010, p. 235)
In Female Head, Lichtenstein confronts art history as his subject matter with striking finesse, systemically fracturing and reimagining iconic paintings of the Twentieth Century to compose his own, utterly original masterwork. In its precisely rendered geometric forms, the present work draws upon similar constructs in the work of such artist as El Lissitzky and Giorgio de Chirico; in contrast, the sinuously organic curves offer sly reference to the fantastical aesthetic of Max Ernst, imbuing the multifaceted portrait with an underlying sensuality. Describing the stylistic multiplicity of Female Head in the exhibition catalogue for the artist’s 1993 retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, an exhibition which included the present work, Diane Waldman notes: “he paired multiple views of the female head, in a manner reminiscent of Picasso and his own early Picasso-esque Woman with Flowered Hat, 1963, with part of a mirror and a fragment of one of his landscapes (see Female Head, 1977)…[Lichtenstein’s] Surrealist-style works give us Surrealism pared down to its essential vocabulary and enhanced by his own visual commentary. While they do not share Surrealism’s fundamental premise—that a language of art could be shaped from the unconscious—they have captured much of its style, a large measure of its wit, and not a little bit of its pathos.” (Diane Waldman, “Futurism, Surrealism, and German Expressionism, 1974-80” in Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Roy Lichtenstein, 1993, pp. 241-243)
Within this fascinating tableau of reimagined Modernism, however, Female Head pays unique and reverential homage to the celebrated oeuvre of one Twentieth Century master above all others: Pablo Picasso, an artist for whom Lichtenstein held a unique and profound respect. Describing Picasso’s immense influence upon his oeuvre, Lichtenstein once noted, “Picasso’s always been such a huge influence for me that I thought when I started the cartoon paintings that I was getting away from Picasso… I don’t think that I’m over his influence.” (Roy Lichtenstein quoted in David Sylvester, Lichtenstein: All About Art, London, 2003, p. 58) Fusing a bifurcated portrait with the fractured and abstracted reflection of a depicted mirror, Female Head achieves a radical restructuring of the female form profoundly evocative of Girl Before a Mirror, Picasso’s own bifurcated portrait of Marie-Thérèse. Echoing the prismatic texturing of Picasso’s 1932 painting, Lichtenstein juxtaposes contrasting fields of dazzling pattern and saturated hue to simultaneously evoke and flatten the depth of field, creating a spatial conundrum that further recalls the central tenets of synthetic cubism. Describing the immense importance the earlier painting held for him, Lichtenstein notes: “Girl Before a Mirror has a special meaning for me. Its strength and color relationships are extraordinary… it reaches a level of discord and intensity that has few parallels.” (The artist cited in Sheena Wagstaff, "Late Nudes," in Exh. Cat., Art Institute of Chicago, Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, 2012, pp.98) While Picasso’s beloved Marie-Thérèse appears absorbed in her own fractured reflection, however, Lichtenstein’s dream girl turns towards us to fix the viewer with her enigmatic gaze; effortlessly invoking a century of art history with unapologetic ease, Female Head boldly relishes her status as a magnificent example of Lichtenstein’s ultimate contribution to Contemporary Art.
A portion of the proceeds from Female Head this November will benefit the Dungannon Foundation, sponsor of The Rea Award for the Short Story.
About The Rea Award for the Short Story and the Dungannon Foundation
Founded in 1986 by Michael M. Rea, a passionate reader and collector of short stories, The Rea Award for the Short Story is given annually to a living American or Canadian writer whose published work has made a ‘significant contribution in the discipline of the short story as an art form’. The Rea Award is unique in that it is not given for a collection of stories or for a body of work, but rather for originality and influence on the genre. The Dungannon Foundation was established by Michael Rea to sponsor The Rea Award for the Short Story and Rea Visiting Writers/Lecturers at the University of Virginia. The Dungannon Foundation continues under the direction of Elizabeth Rea.