This work will appear in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
In Roy Lichtenstein’s Glass V, the humble drinking vessel is writ large, an elegant and witty distillation of the key attributes that have long concerned the venerable Pop artist’s work. Standing nearly six-feet tall, Lichtenstein’s Glass V is enlivened by the same pictorial conventions as his best paintings. Strong black outlines, bright, non-naturalistic colors and raking diagonals translate into three dimensions the appearance of an ordinary pub glass at it would appear in a commercial advertisement or one of the artist’s own paintings. Unlike traditional volumetric sculpture, this work is composed of thin areas of painted bronze that extend into space like the precise delineations of the artist’s brush. Glass V is the largest embodiment of all the Glass sculptures that Lichtenstein produced, and its sense of mass and volume is both implied and negated by Lichtenstein’s depiction; the glass takes on a rounded, cylindrical shape, as it appears to have volume where there is nothing but negative space. A talented, prolific sculptor, Lichtenstein possessed a unique understanding of the sculptural medium, not unlike other painters who sculpt, from Picasso and Matisse to David Smith, and by this time in his career, he created vibrant and interesting work of increasing technical complexity.
As an artist primarily known for his inherently flat, sleek style, with its imagery drawn from comic books and advertisements, it is no wonder that Lichtenstein should approach his sculpture as he would his two-dimensional work. Over the course of three decades, Lichtenstein’s significant body of sculpture often directly recreated imagery from his best paintings. His enamel “explosions” and ceramic coffee mugs of the mid-1960’s appropriated comic-book imagery and ordinary objects that he translated into three dimensions, complete with Ben-Day dots, bright primary colors and bold black outlines. Rather than re-creating the objects as they would appear in real-life, Lichtenstein sought to convey their codified essence: the sort of exaggerated, polished and idealized image that would be well-known to every American viewer from the endless array of TV commercials, magazine advertisements and billboards. In this way, Lichtenstein’s sculpture was a natural extension of his painted work. He described: “There is really not that much difference aesthetically between two and three dimensions to me. I believe sculpture can be seen as a two-dimensional problem. … 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” (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in G. Celant, Roy Lichtenstein: Sculptor, exh. cat., Fondazione Emilio e Annabianca Vedova, Venice, 2013, p. 54).
Like other painters who have adopted the sculptural medium, Lichtenstein pushed the boundaries of the tradition and in the course of creating new work literally transformed the nature of sculpture itself. By integrating aspects of his two-dimensional work within his three-dimensional sculpture, he created something utterly new. Not unlike Picasso’s Maquette for Guitar of 1912, in which pieces of cardboard combine and project into the surrounding space to give the illusion of the rounded contour of a guitar and its hollow body, Lichtenstein likewise conveys the notion of three-dimensional space by the broken lines and raking horizontals of his painted bronze. Similarly, Picasso’s Glass of Absinthe, 1914, uses pictorial conventions to depict an ordinary object in three dimensions. The abstracted, cubist form of Picasso’s two-dimensional work is directly applied to the surface of Glass of Absinthe, in the use of painted shadow to indicate mass and volume and its decorative dot patterning. Likewise, with his Glass V, Lichtenstein makes use of painted bronze to indicate highlight and lowlight. Areas of bright white and bold yellow follow the curve of the glass, while raking diagonals in black and dark blue are used to indicate shadow. A simple, broken black line along the top and bottom edge implies the transparency of the glass itself, and therein the visual trick of Lichtenstein’s technique is revealed: as sculpted line breaks into the surrounding space, the illusion of volume and mass is created.
In the 1970s, Lichtenstein’s sculpture increased in output, complexity and scale. In 1976, he embarked on a series of standing sculptures of drinking glasses that investigate the properties of light and reflection, electing to fabricate these intricate works in bronze to lend a sense of solidity to the inherently linear sculptures. Rendering the ephemeral qualities of light and space as they are conveyed through the mercurial nature of glass is no small feat for an artist, let alone translating those same properties into the solid, weighty medium of cast bronze. Several stages of development were required to complete the finished product, which started with a simple graphite drawing, progressed to a collage stage where the colors and patterns were established, and then with the aid of an experienced carpenter, a wooden maquette was built that would be used to construct the final metal sculpture. Like his paintings, Lichtenstein’s sculptures eliminated any trace of the artist’s hand, though they passed through it many times in the process of their creation.
Just as his ceramic coffee cups of the mid-1960’s engaged in a knowing dialogue with the cup itself as it appeared in magazine ads, billboards and TV commercials, Lichtenstein’s Glass V recalls the look of a simple, glossy advertisement. Yet the work also displays the fundamental questions that lie at the heart of an artist’s work, namely the act of looking and the artist’s gaze. Unlike the humble coffee cup, glass is a mercurial material, its elusive qualities hard to pin down, and its dual tendency of transparency and reflection has long interested the artist. Lichtenstein has explored the concept throughout his career, from the Mirror series of 1969 to 1972, to the Still Life series such as Glass and Lemon in a Mirror of 1974. In the 1990’s, his Reflections series visually replicated the effect of a mirrored-surface in painterly terms, using the same slanting, diagonal lines and combination of yellow, white and blue to denote highlight, lowlight and reflection.
Countless artists throughout time have chased the magic quality of molten glass, from the use of stained glass in medieval cathedrals to the modern era, in works as varied as Matisse’s paintings of goldfish to Duchamp’s The Large Glass. As a framing device, glass has a protective quality that enhances the preciousness and rarity of the painting that it contains, simultaneously allowing the viewer in while also keeping them out by means of a glass barrier. An astute and insightful work, Lichtenstein’s Glass V exploits the multivalent properties of glass and its storied history with humor and style: “In the sculptures no less than the paintings, Lichtenstein’s renowned wit flourishes on a flat-out pre-verbal level. ... The painter we thought we knew is capable of many surprises. Behind the wink the mind’s eye is going a mile a minute. One would not be surprised if this most resourceful of artists figures out a way to suspend ben-day dots in the air” (N. Spector, quoted in “Plane Talk: Notes on Roy Lichtenstein’s Sculptures,” Lichtenstein: Sculpture and Drawings, exh. cat., Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1999, p. 35).