Liverpool, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Roy Lichtenstein, February - April 1993, p. 43, no. 23, illustrated in colour
Milan, Museo Triennale, Roy Lichtenstein: Meditations on Art, January - May 2010, p. 202, illustrated in colour
Jersey, Jersey Museum & Art Gallery, Hidden Treasures - Modern Masters, April - December 2011
In an ingenious pre-emption of the work of Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler and Laurie Simmons within the Pictures Generation, Lichtenstein began to sample and refigure art historical paradigms from as early as 1962 through his work Femme au Chapeau after Picasso. Almost two decades before these artists launched their projects of appropriation and recontextualisation, Lichtenstein made pioneering headway in these postmodern practices. In Cubist Still Life, the artist makes use of sand and imitation wood grain to incarnate the papier collé and collage of Synthetic Cubism: an aesthetic spearheaded by Juan Gris and Pablo Picasso and characterised by the conglomeration of multiple materials and textures in the same work. Rather than deconstructing the object in accordance with Analytical Cubism – producing a fragmented image capturing all possible ways of perceiving it – Gris specifically depicted colourful, recognisable objects through tactile and three-dimensional surfaces that bordered on sculpture. Extending these gestures, Picasso created a number of works that literalised the suggestions of Synthetic Cubist painting within wooden sculpture. Thus, Cubist Still Life is principally an exceptional eulogy to the works of Gris and Picasso: its incorporation of sand recalling Gris’ Violin and Engraving (1913), and its imitation wood grain a reference to Picasso’s sculptural works such as Still Life (1914) and Violin and Bottle on a Table (1915).
There is also, however, a sustained conceptuality to the present work. The disjointed banana at the centre appears partly magnified by a glass lens and recalls the Mirrors of the early 1970s. Realised with invariant humour, the Mirrors announced a newfound interest in the mediations of contemporaneity; their reflections of Ben Day dots serving as a metaphor for the homogenising filter of postmodern retrospection. Lichtenstein was interested in how historic visual languages are recycled in contemporary life, and he embarked on the Still Lifes not to represent Cubist or Purist painting, but rather to represent their representations in decoration, marketing, film and pastiche. Moreover, Cubist Still Life is a beautiful thing in its own right. Indeed, Lichtenstein wanted his Still Lifes to be stunning additions to an interior space: the very kind of thing – ironically – that we might want to capture within a Still Life painting.
Hence, Lichtenstein’s Cubist Still Life works are, paradoxically, not Cubist at all; rather they are “cubistic and elegant. He intends them to be like a decorator’s cubism, with plays of pattern and color, Harlequin designs, and prismatic dislocations” (Jack Cowart cited in: Exh. Cat., St. Louis, The St. Louis Art Museum, Roy Lichtenstein: 1970 - 1980, 1981, p. 78). Given Lichtenstein’s eye for recognisability and wall-power, it stands to reason that Gris’ still life works – whose objects “[gave] the impression of having… an exact equivalent in the material world” – appealed to Lichtenstein more than any other (John Golding, Cubism: A History and An Analysis: 1907 - 1914, London 1959, p. 135). Cowart corroborates this view, suggesting that “if there are sources for this evolution, they are in the works of Léger and more especially Juan Gris…Gris’s inventive unpredictable subjects and highly finished decisive-looking renderings interest Lichtenstein” (Jack Cowart, op. cit., p. 82).
There is a palpable eroticism to the objects in Cubist Still Life. Exuding a luscious sheen not unlike the cherry in Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s sculpture Spoonbridge and Cherry (1985-88), the apple on the far right is pierced by the sharp edge of the central plane, and a pert, nipple-like lemon rests atop the patently phallic mirror imagery of the banana and pipe. In the present work Lichtenstein builds upon enduring art historical traditions that extend back to the Byzantine and Roman eras: the eroticism of fruit as borne out in Baroque and seventeenth-century Dutch schools, and the tradition of Vanitas and Nature morte which remind the viewer of life’s morbidity and ephemerality. By contrast, Lichtenstein’s glossy figures locate sex within a context of levity, modernity and commerciality. Richard Hamilton’s rhetorical question – ‘Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?’ – appears answered within the image-fetish and felt sexuality of Cubist Still Life.
Tom Wesselmann – Lichtenstein’s astute Pop art peer – blurred the dichotomy between the authentic and the copy in his Still Life works; installing uncanny versions of nineteenth-century century portraiture and de Stijl paintings onto the walls of his interior spaces. Likewise, Lichtenstein’s motif of the imitation woodgrain is a way of playing on the concept of authenticity with which woodgrain is associated. The symbol is a kind of paradox: the stamp of an authentic Pop art work that rejects, implicitly, the notion of authenticity. Indeed the imitation woodgrain was so significant an image that it was sometimes designated as the principal subject; for example in Painting with Blue and Yellow Wood Grain (1983). Serving as a perfect example of Lichtenstein’s project as well as boasting some of the rarest qualities possessed by any member of his oeuvre, Cubist Still Life performs both a tribute to and transformation of some of the most important landmarks in early twentieth-century art history.
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