A beguiling mixture of iconic familiarity and inaccessible perfection, Nude Sunbathing marks Lichtenstein’s ultimate and final reunion with his signature blondes. These peerless idols of femininity, gleaned from the pages of comic books and advertisements, appear in Lichtenstein’s oeuvre as early as Girl with Ball of 1961, held in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; over the course of the 1960s, Lichtenstein’s heroines appeared in a number of disparate narratives and guises, ranging from the distressed damsel of Drowning Girl to the domestic temptress of Girl in Bath. 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 the late 1970s, Lichtenstein’s archetypal female underwent 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. Following the Surrealist paintings, Lichtenstein did not revive his signature subject matter until the mid-1990s when, following his major 1993 retrospective, the artist embarked upon his celebrated late Nudes. In her essay on the Nudes in the recent Lichtenstein retrospective co-organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Tate Modern, London, scholar Sheena Wagstaff refers to the Nudes as “monumental celebrations of domesticated eroticism,” further noting, “Lichtenstein hit upon deliberately provocative subject matter in his Nudes… their undeniable frisson of pictorial eroticism both problematizes a compositional architecture's integrity and highlights Lichtenstein's supreme mastery of form, distilled over a lifetime of pursuing technical perfection.” (Sheena Wagstaff, "Late Nudes," in Exh. Cat., Art Institute of Chicago, Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, 2012, pp. 95, 97) As in his iconic paintings of the 1960s, the pose and delightful physique of the stunning blonde in the present work is drawn from popular culture; in this case, Lichtenstein culled his inspiration from the DC Comic Heart Throbs, in which our beauty lounges, her bedroom eyes seductively fluttering, as she reflects, “Danny likes me…I can tell….He likes me for me…but he doesn’t know I can be beautiful." In Nude Sunbathing, as in the other paradigmatic examples from the Nudes, Lichtenstein confronts his heroine in her final, conclusive iteration; stripped bare of the trappings of narrative drama or stylistic rendering, the artist’s dream girl appears in her purest and undiluted form, her alluring and sensual contours rendered with boldly unhindered erotic charge.
While women have always featured prominently within the artist’s quintessential Pop lexicon, Lichtenstein returned to his signature subject matter—the female form—in the Nudes with a new, more powerful syntax. Wagstaff notes, “In the Nudes, not only did Lichtenstein alter the equation in the compositional tension between motif and formal concerns, but also, crucially, he seized upon a new pictorial language. He deduced and acknowledged the nude as a form through which a new syntax could emerge by means of an understated narrative that implies a relationship between the artist-creator and the nude—a contemporary rendition of the Pygmalion-artist conjuring a plausible painterly version of his Galatean muse. Both the artistic and the perceptual tension between form and content, most especially in those paintings that intensified this balance through a mirroring device, were to occupy Lichtenstein in the last years of his life.” (Ibid., 95) Unlike the earlier women, embroiled in romantic trysts or histrionic exploits, Nude Sunbathing does not offer an explicit storyline; instead, the only suggestion of narrative is held in the suggestive glimmer and implied sexuality of her heavily lidded eyes, which gaze at something—or someone—beyond the viewer’s field of vision. Remarking upon the elusive allure of the Nudes, Edward Said notes, “Lichtenstein’s Nudes signal the tension between what is represented and what isn’t represented, between the articulate and the silent.” (Edward W. Said, On Late Style: Music, and Literature against the Grain, 2006, p. xix) Moreover, in their unapologetic celebration of the female form, Lichtenstein’s Nudes capture a more contemporary and more provocative characterization of femininity. Critic Avis Berman comments, "The 1990s Nudes take pleasure in their own company, without the slightest hint of needing or missing a man. They are not paralyzed by their emotions. In contrast to Lichtenstein's original romance-comic pictures, this world flourishes exuberantly without men or engagement rings or kisses." (Exh. Cat., Vienna, Kunsthaus Bregenz, Roy Lichtenstein: Classic of the New, 2005, p. 143) Indeed, as she languidly reclines, gently toying with a thick, lustrous lock of blonde hair, the nude of the present work is utterly unconcerned by the viewer’s voyeuristic gaze upon the sensuous curves of her body; confident in the profound power of her allure, Nude Sunbathing accepts her rightful place within the timeless canon of nudes throughout art history.
In his late focus upon the larger-than-life Nudes, which dominated his considerable creative faculties in the final years of his career, Lichtenstein paid homage to the iconic subject matter of two of his greatest mentors: Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. For both of these artists, the nude operated as the original signifier of desire, codified and distilled into the sinuous contours of the idealized female form. Recalling the profound influence these artists enacted upon Lichtenstein, Dorothy Lichtenstein notes, “He grew up studying [the Venus de Milo], but I think he felt more challenged by what we would call the early Modernists – Picasso, Cézanne, and Matisse. He felt that they had restructured painting and they were actually part of his time. He grew up in New York, and so these were really the first works he saw in the Museum of Modern Art.” (Dorothy Lichtenstein in conversation with Jeff Koons in Exh. Cat, New York, Gagosian Gallery, Lichtenstein: Girls, 2008, p. 11) Throughout his career, these giants of Modernism remained touchstones for Lichtenstein, their investigation of the aesthetic quandaries of modern art—namely the relationship between subject and artist, the temporal nature of reality, and the formal functions of line, light, and color—mirrored within his own oeuvre. In particular, Lichtenstein’s late Nudes trace a markedly similar trajectory to the remarkable creative vigor of Picasso’s artistic experimentation of the late 1920s and early 1930s; in these years, the so-called Marie-Thérèse era, Picasso, inspired and enlivened by the beauty and vitality of his youthful mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, embarked upon a series of formally inventive and powerfully volumetric paintings, sculptures, and etchings of his beloved’s voluptuous form. While Lichtenstein revisited Picasso’s oeuvre with increasing verve in the years following the latter’s death in 1973, the 1990s Nudes represent the crowning achievement and final culmination of the aesthetic engagement between the two. The exhibitions Picasso and the Weeping Women: Marie-Thérèse Walter and Dora Maar, organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1994, and Picasso and Portraiture, mounted by the Museum of Modern Art in early 1996, further contributed to Lichtenstein’s focus upon the Modern master’s renderings of the female form in the mid-1990s. Indeed, although the figural source for Nude Sunbathing is characteristically pulled from the fantasy realm of comic books, her languid pose is startlingly reminiscent of Picasso’s 1932 rendering of Marie-Thérèse in Nude Woman in a Red Armchair, while her cascading drapery, formally complementing and accentuating the silhouette of her slim thighs and abdomen, powerfully evokes Henri Matisse’s Draped Nude of 1936. Lichtenstein’s invocation of these canonical nudes of Modernism in the present work is, however, delightfully problematized by her affinity with the glorified pin-up bombshells of American popular media. Absorbing and advancing the cause of his artistic predecessors, Nude Sunbathing is Lichtenstein’s Pop answer to a decade long dialogue with the iconic nudes of the Twentieth Century.
Lichtenstein’s arresting use of his trademark Ben-Day dots in Nude Sunbathing, echoed in other decisive examples of the late Nudes, profoundly intensifies the artist’s already potent visual vernacular. Addressing the formal brilliance of the Nudes, Sheena Wagstaff reflects, "By the 1990s, [Lichtenstein] had discovered a new way to render color plane and contour, filtered through his profound understanding of mutual influence—an artistic process of call-and-response that defined the innovations of both Picasso and Matisse in the 1930s in holding the pictorial framework in tension.” (Sheena Wagstaff, "Late Nudes," in Exh. Cat., Art Institute of Chicago, Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, 2012, p. 98) Describing the artistic impulse which prompted him to embark upon the late Nudes, Lichtenstein explains, “With my nudes, I wanted to mix artistic conventions that you would think incompatible, namely chiaroscuro and local color, and see what happened. I’d seen something similar in Léger’s work. My nudes are part light and shade, and so are the backgrounds, with dots to indicate the shade. The dots are also graduated from large to small, which usually suggests modeling in people’s minds, but that’s not what you get with these figures.” (Roy Lichtenstein, quoted in Michael Kimmelmann, Portraits: Talking with Artists at the Met, the Modern, the Louvre, and Elsewhere, New York, 1998, p. 89) Lichtenstein’s remarkable employment of the Ben-Day dots in Nude Sunbathing achieves the suggestion of chiaroscuro, long used by artists to evoke the volumetric modeling of three-dimensional subjects, while simultaneously evoking the artist’s iconic Pop lexicon. Cascading across the alabaster flesh of his lounging subject, the scarlet Ben-Day dots expand and contract with meticulous precision, intensifying to bold rows across one slender shoulder before fading to bright pinpricks along the curves of her torso. The modeled treatment of the Ben-Day dots upon the nude strikes a stark contrast with the uniformed red pattern of the background, further highlighting the appearance of illuminating rays upon her naked form. Reflecting upon Lichtenstein’s remarkable use of the Ben-Day dots in the Nudes, Harry Coplans remarks, “In this daring return to the human figure, Lichtenstein employed the dots to depict the flush—not the blush—of female flesh.” He continues, “But wait: the waves of dots exceed the outlines of the figures, continuing into other objects or into the background. The figure has been overtaken, abducted. Dots course through the scene and settle here or there, their action difficult to understand, obscuring bodies and crossing boundaries, like a cataract in the sense of both waterfall and obstruction of vision. As these dots, following their own formal and psychic logic, spread beyond the body, they escape narrative and depiction to become identified instead with the surface of the painting, the plane where the subject and object, artist/beholder and model, would meet, the intersubjective space of the blush.” (Harry Cooper, “On the Dot,” in Exh. Cat., Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago (and travelling), Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, 2012, p. 33)
While the entirety of Lichtenstein’s output is marked by an economy of means, the radical pictorial language of the late Nudes was unprecedented. Speaking in the year the present work was painted, Lichtenstein remarked, “I’m trying to make paintings like giant musical chords, with a polyphony of colors that is nuts but works…It’s tough to make a painting succeed in terms of color and drawing within the constraints I insist on for myself.” (Roy Lichtenstein quoted in Michael Kimmelmann, “At the Met with: Roy Lichtenstein; Disciple of Color and Line, Master of Irony,” New York Times, March 31, 1995, p. C27) Showcasing his remarkable technical virtuosity, Lichtenstein creates a striking and complex composition from the limited vernacular of patterned dots and saturated splashes of prismatic primary colors, constrained and defined by the bold contours of his thick black outlines. By highlighting his figure within a tightly cropped frame, Lichtenstein further imbues his painting with a heightened intensity and emphatic force; as John Coplans suggested, “This paring away of the unessential led Lichtenstein to a sharper confrontation with the outside world, to a wider range and sharper focus in his use of stereotype… It is not that Lichtenstein avoids painting the whole figure because it is too complex but, rather, that the whole figure is too specific, too anecdotal for his purpose. Too much detail weakens the focus and the power of the image to immediately and recognizably signal the desired content. Thus, Lichtenstein crops away until he gets to the irreducible minimum and compresses into the format the exact cliché he desires to expose. Lichtenstein’s technique is similar to his imagery: He reduces his form and color to the simplest possible elements in order to make an extremely complex statement. In short, he uses a reductive imagery and a reductive technique for their sign-carrying potential.” (John Coplans, Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1972, p. 23) Set against an abstract background of pure pattern, Nude Sunbathing is amongst the most emphatic articulations of Lichtenstein’s emphasis upon style and form in the late Nudes; unlike other examples from the series, which contextualize and domesticate the Nudes within lush interiors and playful narratives, the present work commits itself, utterly and entirely, to the celebration of line, color, and light in the beautiful form of the central figure.
Achieving a sensational juxtaposition of prosaic popular imagery with the exalted dominion of fine art, Nude Sunbathing is amongst the most succinct and compelling embodiments of Lichtenstein’s unique artistic project. More than any other artist of his generation, Lichtenstein instinctively understood the phenomenal potential of popular imagery and endeavored to realign the cipher of that imagery to unveil verities behind the ever-proliferating pictorial panorama of contemporary culture in Twentieth-Century America. By invoking the impersonal artifice of mass-produced visuals in his meticulously rendered Ben-Day dots, Lichtenstein’s oeuvre enlists and effectively subverts the expectations of his audience, offering us a brilliantly executed masterwork disguised as the everyday visual matter of contemporary popular culture. In the final years of his career, Lichtenstein further heightened the stakes of his aesthetic endeavor, harnessing the familiar iconicity of mainstream media to depict art history’s ultimate symbol for formal perfection, from antiquity to the present. The annals of art history virtually overflow with examples of seminal nudes, from the cherished marble proportions of Praxitales’s Aphrodite of Knidos, to the frank eroticism of Titian’s Venus of Urbino, to the radical innovation of Picasso’s Demoiselles d'Avignon; in each, the artist offered a purified, conclusive embodiment of his unique aesthetic treatise. There is a profound eloquence to the Nudes, as Lichtenstein’s last significant body of work; Wagstaff notes, “In its powerful iconicity, the nude as an evocative embodiment of the creative process itself is reticulated through serial reiteration of the subject matter. It is the discovery and convulsive act of formal genesis—and Lichtenstein’s symbolic transfiguration of pictorial skin and gristle—that signals its real pictorial metamorphosis, and thus become the means of simultaneously overcoming yet emphasizing its narrative associations. Lichtenstein’s Nudes, created in the last four years of his life, are a profoundly innovative and active meditation upon the relationship of creation and perception.” (Sheena Wagstaff, "Late Nudes," in Exh. Cat., Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago (and travelling), Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, 2012, p. 103-104)
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