Interior with Red Wall, 1991, is a splendid example from Roy Lichtenstein's important series of paintings titled Interiors. One of the last major series produced before the artist's death, these paintings represent a culmination of Lichtenstein's method of appropriating images from popular media to produce iconic aesthetic masterpieces that comment on our time. Seductive commercial images of the modern home interior formed the inspirational basis of the series, as Lichtenstein focused on a subject that has long captured the fascination of Pop artists: the myth of blissful bourgeois domesticity. One of the earliest seminal works of Pop art, Richard Hamilton's Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?, from 1956, is a touchstone for this investigation, depicting a living room collaged over with the accoutrements of the ideal middle-class lifestyle as it appeared in the prevailing media.
From his earliest Pop works, interiors played a vital role in Lichtenstein's oeuvre. His first interior painting, Bathroom, from 1961 belongs to his black and white period, derived primarily from newspaper advertisements, which encapsulated a dramatic period of change in American art. Lichtenstein and his fellow Pop artists were embarking on a complex process of exploring new methods, new subjects, and new boundaries in art. Lichtenstein returned to the Interiors with full force and heightened focus much later in his career. The present work and others from the 1990s series achieve a cleaner, more mechanical appearance, leaving behind the vestiges of hand-painting of his early works such as Bathroom. But from their opposing positions in the timeline of his career, both paintings, with their graphic elements and commercial subject matter, address Lichtenstein's conversion of non-artistic images into non-artistic paintings, posing the question of the meaning of art in our time.
Lichtenstein made his initial break from the canons of Abstract Expressionism with his choice of subject and source. Having worked as a commercial artist in the 1950s, he chose to depict common, every-day subjects from our popular culture, found in newspapers, comic books, and catalogues. The artist's sourcebooks are brimming with clippings that formed his pictorial lexicon. In transforming these pedestrian images into art, Lichtenstein and his colleagues, dissolved the usual distinction between "high" and "low". Among his colleagues, Lichtenstein's approach was the most conceptual and intellectual, intent on commenting ironically on the artifice of painting and the very essence of the practice. Despite initial appearances, a close study of his notebooks and files confirms that Lichtenstein's compositions were never mere copies of his sources, but careful reconstructions with finely tuned editing and a remarkable eye for design and effect.
The Interiors were the first major body of work undertaken by Roy Lichtenstein in the 1990s and are a caricature of the types of excessive interiors prevalent in the 1980s that graced the pages of Architectural Digest. Works such as Interior with Red Wall showcase uncluttered and idealized interiors in a highly graphic and stylized manner. The immense paintings from this series went through three stages of being – first a sketch, then a collage and lastly the final work on canvas. The collages were an invaluable tool, with their ease of adjustment providing a high degree of flexibility in the creation of compositions and balancing of color values. The ratio between the collages and the monumental paintings was an expansive one to four. In the process, Lichtenstein fine-tuned the compositions and made slight changes to the painting – repositioning objects, shifting color tones – in order to prevent the canvas from being a simple enlargement of the collage.
Lichtenstein unified the composition of Interior with Red Wall through the skillful distribution of color and graphics, orchestrating the collision of bold colors and strong geometrics into a harmonious and muscular balance. He demonstrated this skill in the contrast of the red striped floor that spreads throughout the composition and frames the carpet that rests on it. The white expansive sofas create vectors that are balanced by the bold diagonals on the left wall. Art itself plays a role in this tableau of acquisition and possession. Leo Castelli commented on Lichtenstein's Interiors, "What I see when I stand in front of any interior of Roy's is a work of an important artist that I immediately recognize: a Calder, a blue sponge sculpture by Yves Klein, a Lichtenstein, a Johns from the late eighties. But if you eliminate these works from the interiors they become unreal. They are too perfect. The environment is too clean to be habitable." (Leo Castelli in Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Roy Lichtenstein: Interiors, 1999, p. 23). By executing the painting in an oversized format (almost on the scale of a commercial billboard) and in the standardized sharp graphics of the artist's vocabulary, Lichtenstein makes a powerful impact with the present work. The artist revealed the alienation sometimes experienced in conventional contemporary life and commented on the predictability and uniformity among bourgeois American homes.
Oil and Magna on canvas
New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, My 30 Years with Roy Lichtenstein: A Celebration and An Exhibition of His Interiors, February 1992
Pully/Lausanne, FAE Musée d'art contemporain; Liverpool, Tate Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein, September 1992 – April 1993, p. 111, illustrated in color
New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art; Montreal, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Roy Lichtenstein, October 1993 - September 1994 (Los Angeles venue only)
118 x 134 in. 299.7 x 340.4 cm.
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC# 1125)
Ace Gallery, New York (acquired from the above in 1991)
Acquired by the present owner from the above in October 1993