Reflections on the Prom
Oil and Magna on canvas
Signed and dated 'rf. Lichtenstein 1990' (on the reverse)
This work will appear in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
In 1988, Roy Lichtenstein began working on a series of paintings in which he would return to his roots as a Pop artist while at the same time reinforcing his reputation as one of the most progressive artists of his generation. In his Reflections series, he re-investigates the comic book genre that, three decades earlier, had solidified his fame as a Pop Art master. The present painting, Reflections on the Prom, takes as its subject one of the most important events in a teenager’s life; the rite of passage that is the Prom. This ‘all-American’ theme is based upon an image from a vintage DC Romance comic and reprises two of Lichtenstein’s best characters—the beautiful, troubled heroine and her leading man. Flawlessly executed on a monumental scale, the painting embodies all the emotional intensity a of Lichtenstein’s best works. Lichtenstein has long been an artist who sought innovation while continuing to work within his trademark style. In Reflections on the Prom, Lichtenstein uses slanting diagonal lines that run through the canvas, a pictorial shorthand used to depict a reflective surface. This device has a two-fold effect: while visually replicating the effect of reflection, it also literally slices through the picture plane, disrupting the sort of pictorial unity that Lichtenstein has long sought to achieve. In Reflections on the Prom, Lichtenstein reactivates his most highly-celebrated series in order to question the very nature of perception itself.
In Reflections on the Prom, the melodrama which featured so prominently in Lichtenstein’s best comic book paintings is on full display. The central heroine, her bare shoulder nuzzled against her leading man, peers pensively out of the painting, her lips pursed in serious contemplation. Her beautiful eyes display a forlorned melancholy that directly contrasts to the relaxed, at ease nature of the male figure, who gazes down complacently at his partner, totally oblivious to the turmoil that is written upon her expressive face. This, in fact, is the central tension contained within Reflections on the Prom, which Lichtenstein accentuates by placing the couple directly in the center of the large canvas, in a tightly-zoomed angle that heightens their contrasting emotions. The historian Michael Lobel has illustrated the effect of melodrama in Lichtenstein’s work, tracing its precedent to both comic books and cinema; he writes: “In Lichtenstein’s works there can be a kind of claustrophobic closing-off, so that the idea of psychological depth and spatial depth are related —we cannot gain access to the interior state of the depicted figure or the painting itself… Lichtenstein pushes the scene to the surface of the image in much the same way as emotional states are written on the surface of his figures.” (M. Lobel, Image Duplicator: Roy Lichtenstein and The Emergence of Pop Art, New Haven, 2002, p. 138).
By this stage in his career, Lichtenstein had filled his Southampton studio with an endless array of books, magazines, posters, newspapers, comic books and other ephemera that he had spent a lifetime collecting. In Reflections on the Prom, Lichtenstein returns to the DC Romance Comics that he had first used in 1963, for the basis of the work. Lichtenstein selected a single image originally created by the comic artist Mike Sekowsky. In comparing Lichtenstein’s painting to Sekowsky’s, it becomes clear that Lichtenstein altered the original image to suit his pictorial needs. Lichtenstein has purposefully separated the two couples into two different parts of the canvas, thereby creating two separate and distinct narratives. (Even in his earliest work, Lichtenstein never dutifully copied from his source material, but rather made small tweaks and concessions, to enhance his pictorial composition.) Lichtenstein centers the main female heroine and her beau, while the second couple is moved to the painting’s left edge. The central heroine is embroiled by her own troubled thoughts (of which her hunky leading man is completely unaware), as she gazes, disheartened with melancholy, out from the painting, the viewer is left to ponder the meaning of her turmoil. Who is the couple toward the left edge of the painting? Might this be a memory in which our distressed heroine recalls the past transgressions of her beau? Perhaps this is the “reflection” to which Lichtenstein refers.
The reflection of the painting’s title most obviously refers to Lichtenstein’s painterly device of diagonal lines to represent a reflected surface. Lichtenstein had long been fascinated by the possibility of rendering reflection, evident in his early work Girl with Mirror (1964) and the Mirror series of 1969-1972. In Reflections on the Prom, Lichtenstein presents the image as it would appear under a glass frame. Glass is reflective by nature, and when used as a protective frame, the glass is simultaneously reflective like a mirror and transparent, allowing the viewer to see through to the narrative underneath. Lichtenstein describes: “It started when I tried to photograph a print by Robert Rauschenberg that was under glass. But the light from a window reflected on the surface of the glass and prevented me from taking a good picture. But it gave me the idea of photographing fairly well-known works under glass, where the reflections would hide most of the work, but you could still make out what the subject was…I started this series of Reflections on various early works of mine…It portrays a painting under glass. It is framed and the glass is preventing you from seeing the painting.
Of course, the reflections are just an excuse to make an abstract work, with the cartoon image being supposedly partly hidden by the reflections.” (Roy Lichtenstein, quoted in 1995, reprinted in G. Bader, ed., Roy Lichtenstein: October Files, Cambridge, 2009, p. 69).
Glass also has a protective quality that enhances the preciousness and rarity of the painting that it contains. In this respect, Lichtenstein’s depiction of reflected glass simultaneously invites viewers in while also keeping them out by means of the glass barrier, which further refracts and shatters the wholeness of the image. This separation is further problematized by the potent melodrama of the scene and the overall large scale of the painting, which engulfs the viewer, thereby inviting them in, but its diagonal lines refer to an image disrupted. By using this reflective device, Lichtenstein boldly severs the “pictorial unity” that has long been a hallmark in his work. This device further complicates the narrative, which is able to convey the complex emotions of memory, longing, nostalgia and desire, all within one work. Writing in his critical text on the artist, the historian Graham Bader describes this dual phenomenon: “[The paintings] foreground their beholders’ separation from the content they present. The series illustrates not the deep space of mirror illusion but impenetrable surface laid bare by reflected light. Lichtenstein accentuates the blockage by deploying his reflective streaks over particularly loaded or emotionally charged scenes.” (Graham Bader, Roy Lichtenstein Reflected, exh. cat., Mitchell, Innes & Nash, New York, 2011, p. 49). He goes on to say, succinctly: “The paintings suggest that to make art is to engage in a game of reflection and refraction that stretches across history and between works, enveloping artist, image and viewer alike” (G. Bader, ibid., p. 57).
Roy Lichtenstein , 1990s, Paintings, United States of America, Post War
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
74 x 90 in. (188 x 228.6 cm.)
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Jeffrey H. Loria & Co., Inc., New York
Private collection, Philadelphia
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 13 May 2008, lot 40
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
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