ROY LICHTENSTEIN (1923-1997) Brushstroke Head I, 1987 (This work is number five from an edition of six, plus one artist's proof.)

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Lot 22
Brushstroke Head I, 1987

Sold for US$ 1,147,500 inc. premium
Brushstroke Head I, 1987

incised '© rf Lichtenstein 87 5/6' and with the Tallix, Inc. foundry mark (on the base)
painted and patinated bronze

39 3/4 x 16 1/2 x 8 1/2 in.
101 x 41.9 x 21.6 cm

This work is number five from an edition of six, plus one artist's proof.


  • Provenance
    Castelli Gallery, New York.
    Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York.
    Private Collection, Arizona (acquired from the above in 2002).
    Acquired from the above by the present owner.

    New York, 65 Thompson Street, Roy Lichtenstein, Bronze Sculpture 1976-1989, 19 May-1 July 1989, no. 28 (another from the edition exhibited, illustrated in color, p. 75).
    Mexico City, Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes y Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Roy Lichtenstein: Imágines Reconocibles: Escultura, Pintura y Gráfica, 9 July-18 October 1998. This exhibition later traveled to Monterrey, Mexico, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey, 5 November 1998-31 January 1999; Washington D.C., The Corcoran Gallery of Art, (as Roy Lichtenstein: Sculpture & Drawings), 5 June-30 September 1999, no. 107 (another from the edition exhibited, illustrated in color, pp. 19 and 156); Valencia, Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, 21 October 1999-9 January 2000; A Coruña, Spain, Fundación Pedro Barrié de la Maza, 27 January-23 April 2000 (another from the edition exhibited, illustrated in color, p. 158), and Lisbon, Centro Cultural de Belém, 11 May-15 August 2000, no. 107 (another from the edition exhibited, illustrated in color, pp. 19, 156).
    New York, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Roy Lichtenstein Brushstrokes: Four Decades, 1 November 2001-12 January 2002 (another from the edition exhibited, illustrated in color, p. 26). This exhibition later traveled to Zurich, de Pury & Luxembourg, 13 March-18 June 2002.
    Portland, Portland Art Museum, Roy Lichtenstein: Brushstroke, 1 October 2005-12 February 2006, no. 4 (another from the edition exhibited).
    New York, Castelli Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein: Re-Figure, 4 November 2016-28 January 2017 (another from the edition exhibited).

    This work will appear in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.

    The first iteration of an iconic series within the artist's prolific body of work, Brushstroke Head I, 1987, is emblematic of Roy Lichtenstein's lifelong critical engagement with the symbiosis of pictorial presentation and mass communication. Rendered in his signature Ben-Day dots, Brushstroke Head I is a challenging and exuberant example of Lichtenstein's consistent preoccupation with the synthesis of the detached, impersonally manufactured style of newsprint and the emotive quality of the female as muse which clearly informs the thematic content of the present work. Unquestionably, Brushstroke Head I is posited at the crux of Lichtenstein's artistic legacy: universally enthralling, commercially relevant and critically hailed as a "generational icon".1

    At its core, Brushstroke Head I is a powerful fusion of bisecting ideals, a complex construction evocative of Piet Mondrian's return to colorful simplicity that deftly mirrors the physical dexterity of Alexander Calder's delicate wire sculptures. Though on the surface, and further suggested by its title, Brushstroke Head I is a reflection on the fluid, sweeping painterly style of Abstract Expressionism, it also exhibits a classic tenet of Pop appropriation that goes beyond a bold exploration of color. It elevates the status of the mundane, often overlooked elements of modern life in its gestural projection of the highly personal artist's mark, transforming the prosaic into the celebrated, the unsung into the exalted.

    In the creation of Brushstroke Head I, Lichtenstein invites us to consider the aesthetic properties of bronze by inserting motion where it previously did not exist and implying the fluidity of liquid in a static, passive object. In doing so, Lichtenstein revolutionizes the way in which sculpture is visually consumed. Not quite at rest, yet not kinetic in nature, Brushstroke Head I is a seminal piece suspended in a plane that spans the impressive gestures of Abstract Expressionism and the subversive levity of Pop. Lichtenstein himself once labeled his process as "... a reaction to the turn of Contemporary painting back toward an expressionist path, toward the revealing of the brushstroke in the surface of the painting."2 Lichtenstein would later take this idea even further in his realization of the figural Brushstroke Head series in a bronze medium, translated directly from earlier sketched variations.

    Critically trained in formal painting methods, Lichtenstein adopted elements of Surrealism and Cubism early on in his career. By 1961, however, Lichtenstein had begun working regularly with pre-processed commercialized images found in advertising, amplifying and repositioning them in an ironic, concentrated effort to expose the artificiality of a recognizable visual language that purported to present a ubiquitous version of reality to the general public. Around this time, he became interested in industrial fabrication, an important thread that would re-emerge with vigor in the later years of Lichtenstein's lengthy career. Concurrent to the conception of initial sketches for the Brushstroke Head series was a barrage of media onslaught in which mass marketing and dominant visual imagery reigned supreme. Subsequently, Lichtenstein sought quiet refuge in his Southampton studio where he worked to reconcile the basic language of painting as it previously existed within a classical context and as it was evolving in a new technological era. Lichtenstein later returned to New York City in the 1980s, where he would show his Brushstroke Head sculptures for the very first time at famed dealer Leo Castelli's Thompson Street gallery. It is unsurprising that the caliber of Lichtenstein's Brushstrokes was immediately recognized by Castelli, further adding to the illustrious provenance of the present work.

    Brushstroke Head I employs a calculated approach to a linear representation of the brushstroke's embodiment of femininity. Lichtenstein was ultimately concerned with disassembling the concepts of artistic portrayal as they existed in a traditional sense, where the brushstroke alluded to the intense subjectivism of the Abstract Expressionists, and the woman was a distant epitome upon which to confer notions of sensuality and fragility. Poised and resolute, Brushstroke Head I is liberated from the weighty constructs of the female as a sex icon and the brushstroke as a symbol of spontaneity. Instead, the present work satirizes these constructs, highlighting their banality and abstraction. As former assistant to the artist Cassandra Lozano aptly notes, "Roy was always concerned with archetypes, and was driven to capture the essential in things."3 In Brushstroke Head I, Lichtenstein unpacks the archetypal postulation of the feminine muse within an art historical framework. Here, he projects the familiar intimation of the golden-haired, ethereal heroine onto a distinctly unmoving, leaden object, thereby forcing the viewer to reconsider traditional means of expressions of reality. Former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago Robert Fitzpatrick remarks, "They are not sensuous or even sexy, but objectified to elicit the same response as would an ashtray or potted plant, indicative of Lichtenstein's fondness for elevating the commonplace (telephone book ads) to the extraordinary, and of reducing the extraordinary (nudes) to the commonplace."4 Lichtenstein's translation of the female form and its subsequent superimposition onto the reflexive brushstroke is thus more self-referential and appreciative than it is a cursory appropriation.

    The curving, elongated silhouette of the present work places distinct emphasis on pictorial style and isolated gesture, elevating the brushstroke from a fragment of an expressionist composition into an icon of its own. Paradoxically, Brushstroke Head I accentuates the inherent artificiality of Lichtenstein's source material, printed advertisements, while bringing pre-existing imagery into direct confrontation with the painterly language of the Abstract Expressionists. By capturing the stylistic authenticity of his source images, Lichtenstein harnesses emotion, action and gestural vibrancy in one figure that appears as if lifted directly from the pages of a comic book. There is a subtle subterfuge in Lichtenstein's clever re-imaging of advertisements. He achieves this by shifting and exaggerating the scale to dismantle the viewer's perception of hierarchal constructs within art and life, masterfully fusing elements of highbrow culture with mass reproduction. In the Brushstroke Head series, Lichtenstein explores the very concepts of representation and appropriation in his isolation and distillation of the brushstroke to its purest, most original form.

    The discourse on Contemporary American Art all too often relies on the critical assumption that Pop was inherently derivative, or that it was merely a heavily commercialized response to representational painting, a pervasive mentality that Roy Lichtenstein actively railed against throughout his career. Former curator of painting and sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, Carolyn Lanchner, further argues that in his conflation of high and low culture into a single stylistic entity, Lichtenstein "... created a visual syntax new to American art, one that employed cultural clichés to challenge the aesthetic clichés of high art."5 A principal mechanism of Brushstroke Head I is its monumental quality, which magnifies and, further, personifies a single brushstroke, suggestive of the reverence with which Lichtenstein regarded the act of painting. In his animation of the brushstroke, a highly personal mark of the artist, and introduction of an emotive quotient into appropriation art, Lichtenstein created a new lexicon of visual art in the postmodern era, far from the hard-edged formalism of Abstract Expressionist painting before him and the apathetic mass production of Pop that would ensue.

    The precise execution of the present work speaks to Lichtenstein's technical proficiency as a draftsman. Mystically, the work maintains a pictorial flatness emblematic of Lichtenstein's most renowned works on canvas. He achieves his trademark comic book effect in which a larger cohesive image is comprised of various smaller, uniform dots by applying pigment to a flat canvas through a perforated metal screen. In and of itself, this process is painstakingly specialized: when this function is performed on sculpture, it is rendered nearly inconceivable. So innate was his understanding of the ability of found images to inform and influence individual perception, however, that Lichtenstein did so with ease, presenting in one singular visage a multidimensional reading of Contemporary modes, the structural narrative of the brushstroke, and the paradigmatic feminine effigy. In Brushstroke Head I, Lichtenstein enlarges his quintessential Ben-Day dots, their graduated scale illustrative of the freckled face of so many of his comic heroines. Vivid swaths of the artist's brush make up the figure's eyes and mouth, playfully alluding to Lichtenstein's jovial irony. Similarly, larger brushstrokes flank the top and bottom of the composition, anchoring the work by twisting in opposite directions as if propelled into motion by some unknown force.

    The four main compositional elements of the sculpture, although seemingly spontaneous in form, are, in fact, tightly orchestrated and deeply balanced, a nod to Lichtenstein's mastery of formal technique. Each component sits in a harmonized repose, serving a tangible purpose to unify the work and expose Lichtenstein's trademark sense of humor. Though Lichtenstein's approach generally tended towards a graphically minimal use of primary colors, the present work also incorporates a contoured metallic spine, punctuated by a bold black border. Primary colors are rendered richly: ebullient yellow, oceanic blue and luscious red complement one another, creating a dynamic juxtaposition with the stark white and deep onyx that delineate the composition. Ben-Day dots seem to explode against a recessed pristine white backdrop, inching off the sculptural plane and closer to the viewer.

    On the translation of the planar brushstroke to a depth-based sculptural object, Lichtenstein commented, "I think that many sculptors get into this spatial dilemma and it seems to me almost always that the best sculptors have been painters... so much good sculpture is almost well, it's two-dimensional in a certain respect."6 He goes on to say, "A sculpture from any viewpoint should work the way a drawing works, which is a two-dimensional thing."7 Certainly, Brushstroke Head I 'works,' according to the artist's definition. Its execution creates the illusion of a flat plane, yet the amalgamation of figural features is engaging at every angle, furthering Lichtenstein's artistic narrative in which the moment of perception is continually changing.

    In Brushstroke Head I, Lichtenstein investigates the spatial relationship between viewer and object, illustrative of his enduring interest in reworking built artistic tropes. Of breaking down the rigid barrier between two- and three-dimensionality within western contemporary art, the artist thoughtfully noted, "The kind of organization which I think it is about has to do with the sense of positions existing at a related distance and direction from the artist. Sculpture might have an exterior form and then it has changes within that form which create contrast... Contrast may be in a cast shadow or in the illusion of a cast shadows, or contrast can be created in any conceivable way. Now, as you turn the sculpture, or move your position, you continually perceive it differently. It's the relationship of contrast to contrast, rather than volume to volume which makes it work. So, even though I realize it is three-dimensional, it is always a two-dimensional relationship to me, or as two-dimensional as a drawing is."8 Lichtenstein's artistic practice can then be considered a harbinger of postmodern consciousness, a careful yet colorful appropriation that allowed for a codified style - that hovered somewhere between abstraction and representation - to be perceived as the highest form of art.

    1. D. Hickey, Roy Lichtenstein Brushstrokes: Four Decades, exh. cat., New York, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, 2002, p. 10.
    2. A. B. Cullen, Roy Lichtenstein, 1984, as reproduced in J. Cowart, "Pop Up [Art]: Lichtenstein Sculpture", in Roy Lichtenstein: Three Decades of Sculpture, East Hampton, 1992, p. 49, and in G. Celant (ed.), Roy Lichtenstein: Sculptor, exh. cat., Venice, Fondazione Emilio e Annabianca Vedova, 2013, p. 154.
    3. C. Lozano, "Words and Pictures", in Roy Lichtenstein: Interiors, New York, 1999, p. 27.
    4. R. Fitzpatrick, "Perfect Pictures", in Roy Lichtenstein: Interiors, New York, 1999, p. 16.
    5. C. Lanchner, Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 2009, p. 45.
    6. R. Lichtenstein interview with R. B. Baker, in G. Celant (ed.), p. 42.
    7. Ibid.
    8. D. Waldman, Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1993, p. 326.
ROY LICHTENSTEIN (1923-1997) Brushstroke Head I, 1987 (This work is number five from an edition of six, plus one artist's proof.)
ROY LICHTENSTEIN (1923-1997) Brushstroke Head I, 1987 (This work is number five from an edition of six, plus one artist's proof.)
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