'I like the idea of blue and white very much because a lot of commercial artists use it to get a free color. Blue does for black as well; it is an economic thing. So I liked the idea of an apparent economic reason for making one color work as two colors... Of course when these things are done in painting it has another meaning because, obviously, they are not expedient. That has its humor, but it also has other aspects in that a form has been developed that is recognizable to the society'
(R. Lichtenstein, quoted in J. Coplans, 'Talking with Roy Lichtenstein', in Artforum, May 1967, pp. 34-39).
In its graphic intensity and striking array of indigo blue Benday dots, Cup of Coffee is one of the earliest examples of the visually unified Pop image that would go on to inform the growth of Roy Lichtenstein's entire oeuvre. Executed in 1961, the same ground breaking year as his first, now-iconic images such as Look Mickey, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. and Girl with Ball, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Cup of Coffee is a crucial marker of the advent of Pop Art in America. Executed at a time when the American art scene was still dominated by Abstract Expressionism, Lichtenstein's radical pop imagery changed the way in which we perceive art. This work forms part of a series of single-objects that represented quintessential American life - a coffee cup, a piece of pie - and were sourced from mass-produced newsprint ads. Executed in a blue and white monochrome, Lichtenstein creates an iconographic symbol of American life. Rendered in a clean graphic style, Cup of Coffee embodies all of the elements that would go on to define Lichtenstein's practice and represents one of his first experiments with the Benday dots that would become synonymous with the artist himself. Imitated from Benday screens, the artist's meticulously hand-painted dots are more impressionistic in their variegated application, and the contours less emphatic than they would become in later paintings. With the remnants of the artist's graphic markings and underlying pencil drafts peeking through the painterly surface, Cup of Coffee reveals much of the pictorial craft that lies at the very centre of Lichtenstein's paintings. What would at first seem out of place in Lichtenstein's practice, the just discernible brushstrokes show an artist who was still clearly fascinated by the painterly dialogue of abstraction which he had been engaged in since 1957. In this way, Cup of Coffee bridges Lichtenstein's previous investigations in Abstract Expressionism and his now legendary appropriation of mechanically-produced pop. Taken on by Leo Castelli's prestigious New York gallery that same year, by 1962 Lichtenstein had established himself as a leader in the American art world.
Considering his prevailing interest in the iconography of American life, the ubiquitous image of a steaming 'Cup of Joe' was a natural icon for Lichtenstein to adopt. The image is rooted in the Diner-culture of the 1940s and 50s found across the country and was depicted in film and television. With the diner perhaps finding its most famous iteration in art history in Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, the experience of drinking a cup of coffee at the counter was one that every American could immediately relate to. With Lichtenstein's interest in universal imagery, the pictures found on diner menus and ads became a natural starting point for his investigations. Indeed Lichtenstein told Lawrence Alloway in 1962 that the source image for another painting from this period, Ice Cream Soda, 1962 'came from the menu of a diner in New Jersey' (L. Alloway, Lichtenstein, New York 1983, p. 19).
At the core of Lichtenstein's paintings of objects is a drive to simplify representational art so that it could distill the visual impact of contemporary abstract painting. Lichtenstein employs Benday dots to inform this aim: 'when I started to work with dots, they were a comment on printing,' Lichtenstein explained, 'at the same time, it's all dots and lines and color. It's abstract. I can see what the subject is doing, but I don't care' (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in 'Interview with Bob Adelman', The Art of Roy Lichtenstein: Mural with Blue Brush Brushstroke, London 1994, p. 82). Set against a network of fine dots applied by hand, Lichtenstein uses this abstract pictorial device in order to denote depth and shading in his figurative subjects. In Cup of Coffee the artist employs the dots to define the space beyond the cup, allowing the curling wisps of wafting steam from the hot coffee to obscure them. Limiting his palette to primary colors, Lichtenstein exaggerated the limitations of mechanical reproduction, which became as much the subject of the painting as the object itself. 'I like the idea of blue and white very much because a lot of commercial artists use it to get a free color. Blue does for black as well; it is an economic thing. So I liked the idea of an apparent economic reason for making one color work as two colors... Of course when these things are done in painting it has another meaning because, obviously, they are not expedient. That has its humor, but it also has other aspects in that a form has been developed that is recognizable to the society' (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in J. Coplans, 'Talking with Roy Lichtenstein', in Artforum, May 1967, pp. 34-39).
By 1961, Lichtenstein had been painting for more than fifteen years, playing with the media and structures of European modernism through subject-matter rooted in Americana. In 1957, while Lichtenstein was living in Ohio, he began to dabble with Abstract Expressionism, using comic book designs as the formal basis for these paintings. The watershed moment that changed the course of Lichtenstein's career and anointed him as one of the inventors of Pop Art was his move back to the New York City area when he took a teaching position at Douglass College, the women's branch of Rutger's University in northern New Jersey in 1960. It was this move that enabled Lichtenstein to re-engage with the New York art scene. Of this return to New York Lichtenstein explained: 'I was more aware of the Happenings of Oldenburg, Dine, Whitman, and Kaprow. I knew Kaprow well; we were colleagues at Rutgers. I didn't see many Happenings, but they seemed concerned with the American industrial scene. They also brought up in my mind the whole question of the object and merchandising' (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in J. Coplans, 'Talking with Roy Lichtenstein', in Artforum, May 1967, pp. 34-39). An art critic and pioneer in performance art, through his 'Happenings', Allan Kaprow called for an art that celebrated the everyday, particularly by directing attention to the common object in 1958: 'Objects of every sort are materials for the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things that will be discovered by the present generation of artists. Not only will these bold creators show us, as if for the first time, the world we have always had about us, but ignored, but they will disclose entirely unheard of happenings and events, found in garbage cans, police files, hotel lobbies, seen in store windows and on the streets, and sensed in dreams and horrible accidents. An odor of crushed strawberries, a letter from a friend or a billboard selling Drano... all will become materials for this new concrete art' (A. Kaprow, 'The Legacy of Jackson Pollock', in Art News, vol. 57, no. 6, October 1958, pp. 55-57).
With these new ideas finding resonance in conjunction with his recent investigations into Abstract Expressionism, Lichtenstein conceived of a radical style based on industrial printing. In a Cup of Coffee Lichtenstein has stripped back his palette, utilising the Benday dots of newsprint imagery. Despite the radical, unorthodox and shocking nature of his appropriation of mass-media imagery as the subject matter of his art in the early 1960s, Lichtenstein's handling of such pictures is situated within a larger painterly context. Lichtenstein was attracted by the simple mechanics of cartoon representation, in the way that the strength of an abstracted line could convey an eyebrow, for example. He ultimately sought this same quality of line in his own work, promoting a 'blending' of sorts with his own Abstract Expressionist style. Yet in his adoption of a lean, flat way of painting that defined the picture plane as finite, Lichtenstein's abstracted gestures opposed the spatial play of Abstract Expressionism. Undercutting the emotion supposedly engendered in the gesture of brushwork, Lichtenstein instead presented how abstract shapes could be manipulated to signal certain associative meanings. Indeed upon viewing this abstracted pictorial form conceived by Lichtenstein, there is a surprise and shock in the realisation of the power that a simple, artificial mode of representation such that Cup of Coffee was based upon, could convey. Indeed, we can see this very idea of 'trying to use the interesting visual qualities of these things or to comment on the visual qualities' manifested in his rendering of the curling wisp of steam rising from the coffee cup' (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in D. Waldman, 'Lichtenstein interviewed by Diane Waldman', Roy Lichtenstein, London 1971, p. 26).
Lichtenstein's attraction to the anonymous, stock imagery of small adverts found in newspapers and mail-order catalogues advocating the 'new and improved' side of American advertising meant that an image of a steaming Cup of Coffee was just the sort of cliché image that he would find appealing. Lichtenstein revelled in the possibilities inherent in generic mass-media imagery to become an abstracted sign of sorts through the process of enlargement. 'An important part of recent painting may be that it seems to symbolize 'thing' - 'frankfurter', 'circle', 'stripe', after generations of art which symbolized relationships' Lichtenstein explained, 'Johns and Rauschenberg understood this so well. The power lies in how it is conceived, not in what it is made to symbolize' (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in D. Waldman, 'Lichtenstein interviewed by Diane Waldman', Roy Lichtenstein, London 1971, p. 27).
For Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns as well, this affinity for stock designs left the structure of their works open to the exploration of visuality and perception on multiple levels. Of this idea Johns noted that for him, 'it all began with my painting a picture of an American Flag. Using this design took care of a great deal for me because I didn't have to design it... That gave me room to work on other levels' (J. Johns, quoted in 'His Heart Belongs to Dada', in Time Magazine, no. 73, 4 May 1959, p. 58). Lichtenstein did not make straight copies of commercial sources as a blanket rejection of the more gestured, painterly renderings of the abstract art which had come to dominate art in America. Instead in his abstracted handling of his semi-mechanised single-object images like Cup of Coffee, Lichtenstein challenged the aesthetic orthodoxy of the time that was still permeated by the spiritual and conceptual ambitions of Abstract Expressionism. As Lichtenstein explains the genesis of his oeuvre, 'I came to Pop by way of Expressionism - by abandoning my own taste in this direction' (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in D. Waldman, 'Lichtenstein interviewed by Diane Waldman', in Roy Lichtenstein, London 1971, p. 26).
Cup of Coffee
Oil on canvas
PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT EUROPEAN FAMILY COLLECTION
Signed and dated 'Rf Lichtenstein '61' (on the reverse)
Roy Lichtenstein , 1960s, Paintings, United States of America, Post War
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
19 7/8 x 16in. (50.5 x 40.5cm.)
Roy Lichtenstein, exh. cat., Vienna, Kunstforum Vienna, 2003-2004 (illustrated in colour, p. 202).
Roy Lichtenstein: Meditations of Art, exh. cat., Milan, La Triennale di Milano, 2010 (illustrated in colour, p. 53).
Roy Lichtenstein: Black & White 1961-1968, exh. cat., Vienna, Albertina, 2011, no. 2 (illustrated in colour, p. 55).
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York.
Galleria dell'Ariete, Milan.
Private Collection, Milan.
Acquired from the above by the present owners circa 1970.