This work will appear in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
Painted in 1996, Landscape with Boats belongs to an elite grouping from Roy Lichtenstein’s most innovative and insightful years. At once monumental and serene, this sublime painting belongs to the artist’s Landscape in the Chinese Style series—and one of a handful of horizontal “scrolls”—which look to the Chinese master painters from the Song dynasty (960–1279) for stylistic inspiration. Lichtenstein, however, was in reality prompted by Edgar Degas’s 1994 retrospective exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The works in this exhibition seemed to suggest to Lichtenstein that the features of a landscape could be achieved with limited, albeit strategic and exacting, swaths of paint. To create this painting, Lichtenstein used his signature Ben-Day dots in methodical concentrations to produce the traces of water, horizon, mountains, sky and depth. Furthermore, Lichtenstein decorated the perimeter of the composition with calligraphic tree branches and leaves to give the viewer the sense they are looking onto an expansive seascape from a high hillside. He added strokes of blue, green and yellow to hint at foliage on the tops of each mountain peak, and also used more exacting geometric shapes to place one boat with two figures in yellow and red in the foreground. Then he painted hazy suggestions of boats in the distance to suggest depth, effectively completing the painting.
Bold and reverent, Landscape with Boat is distinctly Lichtensteinian. Whereas his artworks from the 1960s duplicated found-comic book imagery to synthesize fine art and Pop culture, Landscape with Boats exemplifies Lichtenstein’s maturity and essential singularity. The key formal components of the artist’s oeuvre—Ben-Day dots and bold colors—are clearly present, yet the harsh black strokes that typically delineate borders are now absent. Instead, Lichtenstein has opted to rely solely on his dots to construct the contours of Landscape with Boats. The artist deconstructs the usual signifiers of his subject—sea, sky and mountains—and reconstructs them by playing with the negative space of the canvas. At a glance, Lichtenstein’s Ben-Days establish depth by utilizing the horizontal plane of this canvas. The more concentrated the dots, the closer the plane—as illustrated by the top and bottom of the canvas. The dots then seem to dissipate towards the middle x-axis to suggest a misty horizon in the distance. However, the mountains tend to obfuscate the perspectives established by the borders. Black dots are concentrated at the tips of each mountain, making it impossible to guess which is closer or farther from the viewer. The true anchoring devices in Landscape with Boats are the gangly tree branches to the left and bottom right-hand corner, as well as the scattered boats towards the misty limits of the water. These instruments, perhaps deliberately, break from Lichtenstein’s conventional methods to teleologically ground the otherwise spatially-liberated composition.
The works from the Landscapes in the Chinese Style, and the present work in particular, borrow this dimensional ambiguity from the Song dynasty masters such as Ma Yuan, Xia Gui, Liang, Kai and Muqi. Their elegant technique demonstrated a harmonious and vast universe suffused with Daoist philosophies which emphasized balance, simplicity, harmony, humility and mindfulness. Xia’s Pure and Remote Mountains and Streams (National Taipei Museum, Taiwan) illustrates such refined candor in the calligraphic execution of the towering mountains and cliffs. This work especially echoes Lichtenstein’s infatuation with Chinese painting. According to Stephen Little, an Asian American Art scholar, these Song artists investigated “the effects of atmosphere with brush and ink in sophisticated and subtle manner, pushing the real and the visible to the edges of abstraction in a way that resonated deeply with Lichtenstein’s own artistic goals” (S. Little, “Landscapes in the Chinese Style,” Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 2013, p. 89).
Lichtenstein’s interest in the artworks of the East began while he served in the US Army during World War II. Just 21, Lichtenstein wrote home to his parents while stationed in London, “I bought a book on Chinese painting, which I could have gotten in New York half the price. I’ll probably send it home with my collection of African masks, as my duffle bag now weighs more than I do, with all the art supplies” (R. Lichtenstein, Roy Lichtenstein: Landscapes in the Chinese Style, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, Hong Kong, 2011, p. 7). Later, when Lichtenstein returned to Ohio State University to complete his undergraduate and graduate degrees, he enrolled in classes on East Asian art history. “The thing that interested me was the mountains in front of mountains in front of mountains, and huge nature with little people,” Lichtenstein recalled. “We all have a vague idea of what Chinese landscape look like—that sense of grandeur the Chinese felt about nature” (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in C. Tomkins, “The Good China,” The New Yorker, September 30, 1996).
At the same time, however, Lichtenstein has said “It’s not really what I do—all that subtlety and atmosphere... In my mind, it’s sort of a pseudo-contemplative or mechanical subtlety...” (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in S. Little, “Landscapes in the Chinese Style,” Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 2013, p. 92). In deeming the works from Landscapes in the Chinse Style “pseudo-contemplative,” Lichtenstein harkens back to his earlier 1960s works—indeed, his entire oeuvre—which earned him international acclaim. In paintings such as Drowning Girl (1963, Museum of Modern Art, New York) or Whaam! (1963, Tate, London), Lichtenstein borrows comic book imagery and turns them into “pseudo” comics—indexes of American consumer culture. As his artistic practice matured and he continued to explore popular American culture, Lichtenstein began to play with ideas of representation and seeing. His Brushstroke series from the 1960s took the gestures made by the Abstract Expressionists and deconstructed them—effectively satirizing the movement’s omnipresence in postwar America. Similarly, in Landscape with Boats, Lichtenstein alludes to the West’s long-held fascination with East Asian art and culture. By the 1990s, China’s economy had grown and stabilized, demonstrating the potential to be an economic powerhouse—perhaps reinvigorating the American public’s fascination with the country.
Claude Monet similarly satirized Paris’s obsession with Japan during the late 19th century when Japan ended its isolationist policies. In La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume) (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), Monet’s wife is draped in a Japanese robe with colorful fans displayed on the wall behind her. She wears a blonde wig to further juxtapose her western identity against the Japanese symbols. Then, Lichtenstein’s contemporary Andy Warhol obsessed over an image of Chairman Mao Zedong, similarly Pop-ifying and pseudo-fying the leader’s visage twenty years before Lichtenstein’s Landscape with Boats. The present painting, however, derives inspiration from the respected tradition of Chinese scroll painting. “That’s what I’m getting into” he stated. “It will look like Chinese scroll paintings, but all mechanical” (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in K. Bandlow-Bata, “Roy Lichtenstein—Landscapes in the Chinese Style,” Roy Lichtenstein: Landscapes in the Chinese Style, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, Hong Kong, 2011, p. 8).
Despite Lichtenstein’s adamant claims of generating a “mechanical” iteration of the Song scrolls, Landscape with Boats offers a version so harmonious and in keeping with Chinese landscape painting. Simultaneously entrenched in Eastern tradition and contemporary Western ideologies, the works in this series are among Lichtenstein’s most sophisticated. They encompass simultaneous opposing forces—old and new, calligraphic and mechanical, East and West. The result is a universally relatable masterpiece by one of Pop’s masters. Perhaps related to Lichtenstein’s decision to engage with Chinese landscape during the 1990s is that China’s own economic and cultural reality was shifting towards a consumer culture due to political reasons. This historical circumstance adds an interesting, mutual relationship between Lichtenstein and China—while the artist imbues Chinese landscapes with his signature style, China began to adapt consumerism, similar to that which acts as the backbone to American Pop Art. Still, one must query why Lichtenstein embarked on Landscapes in the Chinese Style so late in his life, despite his lasting affection for the genre: “I’m thinking about something like Chinese landscapes with mountains a million miles high, and a tiny-fishing boat—something scroll like, and horizontal with graduated dots making these mountains, and dissolving into mist and haze” (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in K. Bandlow-Bata, “Roy Lichtenstein—Landscapes in the Chinese Style,” Roy Lichtenstein: Landscapes in the Chinese Style, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, Hong Kong, 2011, p. 8).