This work will appear in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
Roy Lichtenstein’s Sailboats is a brilliantly original work from one of the artist’s most inventive decades. Flawlessly executed on a monumental scale, Sailboats weaves together a rich array of influences to capture the ephemeral effects of sailing upon the high seas. The strong forward motion of the boat as it cuts through the water creates a dramatic tension that is heightened by Lichtenstein’s signature palette of vivid primary colors and raking diagonal lines. Lichtenstein has long been an artist who sought innovation through the particular conventions of his trademark style, and in the 1970s, he left virtually no stone unturned as he produced series after series based on the great “isms” of Modern art. In 1973, he turned to Cubism, and a series of Cubist-inspired paintings that ensued seemed to filter Picasso through the prism of Pop Art.
Sailboats captures the ephemeral effects of ocean air and sea spray within a vibrant yet original arrangement that seems to recall a kind of Cubist stained glass. Vivid planes of color intersect at odd angles, shifting and curving to suggest the motion of a red sailboat as it glides across the water. Elsewhere, exquisitely painted areas of rich yellow imply a lighthouse beam that cuts through a dense fog. Along the right edge, black-and-white diagonals are used to indicate a rocky outcropping along the coast. Though composed primarily of flat, geometric forms, the painting evokes a lively sense of movement. A dynamic push-and-pull is felt, as enigmatic forms begin to emerge and dissolve, much like the atmospheric quality of the ocean and its many moods.
Whereas earlier paintings of the 1960s relied upon Ben-Day dots to indicate shading, mass or volume, in 1973 Lichtenstein developed the use of repeated diagonal lines to replicate shadow or half-tone. This particular diagonal technique lent itself quite readily to his exploration of Cubist form. In Sailboats, triangular sections of repeating diagonal red lines replicate the effects of a sail as it’s propelled by the wind, while elsewhere blue diagonals perfectly evoke the movement of waves across a body of water. Much in the same way the Cubists might depict several different angles of a single glass or other object within a two-dimensional plane, Lichtenstein likewise combines multiple viewpoints within the unified surface of the canvas through his rigorous exploration of Cubist style.
Throughout his Cubist series, Lichtenstein adapted his own pictorial language to the methodology developed by Picasso many decades earlier. The resulting paintings display a fundamentally new style that allowed the artist to innovate while pursuing the same artistic conventions that had dominated his earlier work. It should come as no coincidence that Lichtenstein’s explorations of the Cubist style date to 1973, the same year that marked Picasso’s death at the age of 91. In fact, Lichtenstein’s explorations of Picasso’s Cubism appear to have kickstarted his decades-long dialogue with Modernist art. When asked in 1974 about Picasso’s influence on his work, Lichtenstein stated: “Picasso always had an influence on me. Together with Matisse, he is the enormous influence on 20th century art. When you think about Cubism, you think about Picasso and the range of his image… I don’t think there is any question that Picasso is the greatest figure of the 20th century” (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in B. Diamonstein, “Caro, de Kooning, Indiana, Lichtenstein, Motherwell and Nevelson on Picasso’s Influence,” Artnews, April 1974, pp. 45-46).
Picasso’s Cubist collage often incorporated printed materials such as newspaper clippings, small pieces of wallpaper and other decorative, commercially-printed ephemera. The artist would combine his own painterly renditions of newsprint alongside their actual real-world counterpart, producing a groundbreaking new kind of work that questioned the very nature of two-dimensional art. So too, did Lichtenstein investigate the ubiquitous quality of the mass-produced image, from his earliest paintings that depicted comic book heroes to the black-and-white paintings of “common objects” gleaned from commercial advertisements. In Sailboats, Lichtenstein based his rendering on pages ripped from comic books, magazines, newspapers and phone books, that he pasted scrapbook-style in old-fashioned composition notebooks. The imagery he preferred often depicted the hyper-stylized sea-and-sky background of a tropical sunset or the peaceful idyll of sailboats gliding through the water. He also looked to black-and-white illustrations of sailboats and cruise ships that were used to promote the idea of a relaxing vacation. In this way, Lichtenstein borrowed from popular culture to present a flat, comic-book style pastiche of a romanticized seascape, from wild adventure set upon the high seas to the romantic lolling of the waves of a gentle, leisurely sail.
In the 1970s, Lichtenstein excavated the depths of Modern Art as he explored and recreated different artistic genres. It should come as no surprise, then, that he might also come to investigate the genre of maritime painting. This might have crossed his mind a few years earlier, when in 1970 he moved to Southampton, a seaside locale that had gained a following with many artists, including de Kooning, who praised the area for the quality of its light. In fact, a small series of Cape Cod-themed still lifes that Lichtenstein painted between 1972 and 1974 reveal a growing interest in the subject.
In Sailboats, Lichtenstein’s stylized depiction of a battered, wind-swept coast, its rocky outcropping, and the lighthouse with its powerful, fractured beam seems to conflate the heroics of maritime art with a flat, comic-book style pastiche that recalls the amateur do-it-yourself aesthetics of a Paint-by-Numbers kit. It harkens to the kitschy regional art that one might find in a seaside cottage on Cape Cod or coastal Maine. As one critic so aptly put it, Lichtenstein’s work from this era “can do two things—it can switch a comic book into fine art, or it can switch fine art back into comic style” (L. Alloway, “On Style: An Examination of Roy Lichtenstein’s Development Despite a New Monograph on the Artist,” Artforum, March 1972, p. 54). One can conclude that Sailboats does both, in a witty back-and-forth dialogue.
In what critics have termed a “complexity of reference,” Lichtenstein’s work from this era evokes a myriad of sources, both art historical and self-referential. Upon reviewing his work in 1973, one critic remarked: “With an extremely circumscribed set of technical conventions, Roy Lichtenstein has continually invented images of insistent sparkle, wit and wisdom. No one who emerged in the fervent atmosphere of New York in the early Sixties has been so prolific or achieved such consistent renewal” (D. Crimp, “New York Letter,” Art International, Summer 1973, p. 89) Indeed, Lichtenstein’s paintings continue to dazzle and amaze with a visual bravura that remains as potent today as when they were painted so many decades ago.