Léger spent the first half of the 1940s living in the United States and this experience had a profound impact on his art. Although his works of the 1920s and the 1930s already reveal an interest in using an increasingly vivid palette, the kaleidoscope of New York, with its neon lights, billboards and shop fronts, was transformative to the artist's oeuvre. As Léger recalled, "I was struck by the neon advertisements flashing all over Broadway. You are there, you talk to someone, and all of a sudden he turns blue. Then the color fades—another one comes and turns him red or yellow... I wanted to do the same in my canvases" (quoted in Fernand Léger (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 236). This, combined with the vitality of the city, imbued his work with a new energy and it remained an influence that can be felt in the fully saturated blues, yellows, reds and greens of La Roue noire, 1er état.
In contrast to what Léger considered the rarefied and elitist aesthetic of abstraction, his paintings of the period were intended to appeal to the public with a more comprehensible, figurative style. However, he also argued that a return to a figurative subject did not necessarily preclude the use of abstract forms, but that the freeing progress of the pre-war period should now be used to create an aesthetic for the modern age that was accessible to all.
In La Roue noire, 1er état, Léger succeeds in this aim, combining both figurative and abstract elements in a riotous fusion of color. As in many of his later still lifes, it is the amalgamation of natural and biomorphic forms with elements of mechanical iconography that allow the artist to achieve this balance (see fig. 1). Léger spent the summers of 1943-45 on a farm in a small French-speaking village in northern New York State where, as he later explained, he painted a number of works, "inspired by the contrast presented by an abandoned machine—become old scrap iron—and the vegetation which devours it. Nature eats it. It has disappeared, under the weeds and wildflowers" (quoted in ibid., p. 235).
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