Lichtenstein first broached still life as a subject matter for his 1961-62 paintings of solitary objects, such as Tire (1962), Ice Cream Soda (1962) and Cherry Pie (1962). Placed against flat monochromatic backgrounds and rendered in restrained palettes, these paintings exemplify Lichtenstein's early foray into the stark, graphic style common to print advertisements. Returning to the still life genre in 1971, Lichtenstein's later canvases depict more complex compositions, yet retain the highly graphic quality of his earlier works. The bold, confident composition of Grapes, executed in 1974, therefore reveals an instinctive assurance arising from these earlier experiments. Indeed, examples from this important period are held in prestigious museum collections, such as Still Life with Green Vase at The Broad in Los Angeles (1972), and Still Life with Crystal Bowl (1972) at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Lichtenstein’s celebrated use of bold, primary colours is evident on the surface of the present work, where only three colours form the chromatic structure of subject, foreground, and background. The artist himself asserted, “I use colour in the same way as line. I want it oversimplified... It is mock insensitivity. Actual colour adjustment is achieved through manipulation of size, shape and juxtaposition” (Roy Lichtenstein cited in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein, 1968, p. 9). Here Lichtenstein intelligently toys with our preconceived notions of perspective so that there is no real sense of depth, flattening the table surface against the wall to such an extent that the grapes appear to hover at the centre of the configuration; similarly, no shadow mars the background of the composition, further accentuating the flat, two-dimensionality of Lichtenstein’s still life. Though Grapes is highly idealised, the fruit still appears remarkably tactile and appealing in its vitality, inviting Bacchanalian associations. The result is an immensely attractive work bursting with sheer exuberance which aptly conveys the artist’s fascination with his subject.
Along with Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and Tom Wesselmann, Lichtenstein is considered a giant of Pop art and a key figure in the continuing story of avant-garde art in twentieth-century America; he worked in an instantly identifiable style, developing his own unique artistic language that looked beyond the commercial realm and towards that of art history, using canonical works from previous movements as his source imagery. The still lifes of the 1970s, like their predecessors from the 1960s, feature food and domestic items common for their time, positioned at the centre of the canvas. A quotation from a 1966 interview with David Sylvester serves to explain Pop art's insistence upon blowing up and enlarging simplified forms. "In America," said Lichtenstein, "the biggest is always the best" (Originally recorded in January 1966 by David Sylvester in New York City for broadcast by BBC Third Programme. The interview was re-edited for publication in 1997 for David Sylvester's Some Kind of Reality, London, 1997). Grapes provides a brilliant illustration of this concept: the grapes themselves appear uncommonly large, reinforcing the idea of America as the ‘land of plenty.’ Visually arresting and innately joyful, Grapes delivers an outstanding reinvigoration of the traditional still life genre, while offering a succinct commentary on consumerism in America.
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