A work of scintillating wit and superb execution, Woman with Neck Ribbon from 1978 exemplifies the astounding variety of ways in which artist Roy Lichtenstein approached, reused, and reevaluated icons and imagery throughout his remarkable career. In the 1960s, Lichtenstein garnered worldwide attention and acclaim for the piercing satire and bold appropriation of his paintings; in these prototypical Pop masterworks, Lichtenstein placed the familiar visual vernacular of comics, advertising, and film in unexpected dialogue with the elevated lexicon of fine art. It was not until the 1970s, however, that the artist focused his practice of ingenious appropriation upon the larger subject matter of art history. Situated at a pivotal moment in the artist’s oeuvre, Woman with Neck Ribbon is a superb example of the artist’s iconic Surrealist paintings of 1977 to 1979; in these complex compositions, Lichtenstein presented a remarkable amalgamation of art historical tropes and self-referential allusions to his own oeuvre. With examples of Lichtenstein’s Surrealist paintings from 1977 and 1978 held in such collections as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, amongst numerous others, this series represents the inventive mind of the artist at the creative apex of his extraordinary career. Irresistibly enigmatic, Woman with Neck Ribbon is a testament to Lichtenstein’s own wry comment that, “All my art is, in some way, about other art.” (Roy Lichtenstein quoted in Janis Hendrickson, Roy Lichtenstein, Cologne, 2000, frontispiece)
Picasso explored the etchings of Rembrandt, while Warhol deftly repurposed the devotional imagery of da Vinci; for centuries, artists have absorbed the art of centuries past, engaging in a timeless dialogue with their art historical forbearers. In Woman with Neck Ribbon, Lichtenstein confronts art history as his subject matter with striking finesse, systemically deconstructing and reconstructing iconic paintings of the Twentieth Century to compose his own, utterly original masterwork. While he considered Surrealism to be the specific aesthetic departure for this series, the present work merges sly references to a diverse range of artists, movements, and masterpieces. The gaping collar and absent face of the central figure subtly recall The Pilgrim, the infamously uncanny self-portrait by the celebrated Surrealist René Magritte. Unlike Magritte, however, Lichtenstein does not replace the absent visage of his figure with an object, or displace it to the figure’s side; instead, calling upon the legacy of Picasso, Lichtenstein rotates the single, long-lashed eye of the figure to gaze upon her own flowing blonde locks. Reflecting upon his career, 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) The influence of Cubism is clearly articulated in Woman with Neck Ribbon by the radical re-structuring of feminine form which warps the central figure. In contrast, the precisely rendered geometric forms to the right of the figure reference similar constructs in the work of such artist as El Lissitzky and Giorgio de Chico, their intermittent pattern and saturated cool tones offering a bold contrast to the sinuous, buttery yellow form of the blonde figure. Spliced and remixed, shifted and presented anew, Woman with Neck Ribbon sets the diverse vernaculars of Cubism, Surrealism, and Suprematism into fascinating opposition.
Breathtaking in the scope of its referential vernacular, Woman with Neck Ribbon aligns numerous elements from Lichtenstein’s own oeuvre with a rich compendium of art historical tropes in an ingenious homage to art of the past. The present work bears a notable and uncanny resemblance to Lichtenstein’s Self-Portrait, which was painted the same year. One of the only explicit self-portraits of the artist’s prolific output, Self-Portrait from 1978 depicts the artist as the empty collar of a white T-Shirt, his face replaced with a blank mirror. Woman with Neck Ribbon offers a more nuanced consideration of gender roles, with the masculine shirt collar set against the displaced female figure. Indeed, the female figure of the present work appears to be an updated vision of Lichtenstein’s signature blonde, who has departed from her 1960s role as the heroine of narrative and remerged, fractured and reconfigured, in the imaginative realm of Surrealism. In the flowing locks of yellow hair, the shadows of Lichtenstein’s iconic Brushstroke paintings appear, winding sinuously down the length of the canvas; used in the very first of Lichtenstein’s Surrealist paintings, Female Figure of 1977, the abstracted mane of blonde locks is amongst the most common elements of the series. In her many guises, from comic book temptress to disembodied head to featureless profile, the seductive and unnamed female muse is the central protagonist of Lichtenstein’s oeuvre. Reflecting upon the deft assimilation of disparate artistic references in the Surrealist paintings, Lichtenstein commented, “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 ... I used a flowing line to make a torso with holes through it like a slice through a Henry Moore sculpture. I used a mixture of improbable elements (there is even an early Imperfect painting and a Greek column) to give the feeling of a Surrealist painting. 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 Woman with Neck Tie, Lichtenstein offers the viewer an intimate engagement with both art historical precedent and his own artistic past. By weaving allusions to the Surrealist figures of Magritte with the Cubist muses of Picasso, he creates an enigmatically multifaceted composition that defies clear categorization. The myriad diversity of external references is counter-balanced by the highly personalized treatment of his own oeuvre in the present work, as the artist draws on the forms of figures from his iconic paintings with the same acerbic wit and artistic license that has always characterized his distinctive practice. Indeed, considering his relationship to art history, Lichtenstein commented, “All painters take a personal attitude toward painting. What makes each object in the work is that it is organized by that artist’s vision. The style and the content are also different from anyone else’s. They are unified by the point of view—mine. This is the big tradition of art.” (The artist cited in Calvin Tomkins, Roy Lichtenstein: Mural with Blue Brushstroke, New York, 1988, p. 42)
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