Roy Lichtenstein's artistic career was marked by an unprecedented ability to unlock the beauty from the pictorial conventions of ubiquitous, everyday images. In the 1960s, Lichtenstein garnered fame for his adaptations of comics, advertising and other forms of 'low' art, placing them into the 'high' art context of the gallery and museum. These paintings reproduce the language of graphic and commercial reproductions. Yet with bold lines and vivid color, Lichtenstein created a unique style which was the beginning of his ultimate subject: art about art. Avant-garde and Modernist movements earlier in the century had decried traditional genres such as nudes, landscapes and narrative painting. Yet as the century progressed, many artists acknowledged that the subject matter of figurative and landscape art never completely disappeared, and the dialectic between the subjects of art and the techniques of art was nowhere more thoroughly explored than in Lichtenstein's oeuvre.
Lichtenstein's Sailboat series consists of three paintings depicting heavily abstracted sailboats at sea. At the time he was working on this series, Lichtenstein was also painting his Cubist Still Lifes, Abstractions, and Still Lifes. In these four series from the early and mid 1970s, it is clear that Lichtenstein consciously looked for inspiration from the Cubists as well as more traditional nautical paintings that commonly appeared throughout art history. The fractures of Modernist composition are predominant in this period since they have a synergy and compatibility with Lichtenstein's graphic techniques. These works all balance active and disrupted compositions with clear patterns and textures. Speaking about the inspiration for his paintings, the artist stated, "I think the aesthetic influence on me is probably more Cubism than anything. I think even the cartoons themselves are influenced by Cubism, because the hard-edged character which is brought about by the printing creates a kind of cubist look that perhaps wasn't intended." (Anthony d'Offay, ed., Some Kind of Reality: Roy Lichtenstein interviewed by David Sylvester in 1966 and 1997, London, 1997, p. 7).
The present work, Sailboats III, 1974 is the most active and complex composition of the three paintings on this subject. Lichtenstein created tension and displacement in the painting by presenting different viewpoints of the same image in one composition - very much a Cubist trope. The sailboat in the foreground, rocking among the waves with a white flag at the top of its mast, is the most easily understood rendering of an object in the present work. There are other triangular sail-like shapes in the background but it is difficult to read just how many boats are represented. The sail shapes differ and imply different effects of wind – some appear full as when boats race with the wind behind them and others fluff and ruffle as boats turn into the wind. This implied speed as sailboats careen in the wind is further amplified by the extreme motion as the boats seem to rock back and forth in the waves. The sky is also a fragmentary combination of shapes and colors butting up against each other and connecting to a heavily abstracted coast line in the upper quarter of the painting, only discernable from the fractured lighthouse in the center. This painting harnesses the rigorous stylistic order and overwhelming graphic clarity of the comic strip while simultaneously mimicking the modes of mechanical reproduction. Lichtenstein's palette was reduced to the core primary colors which are kept as close as possible in feeling, texture and pitch to those used in advertising As the artist has said: "I use color in the same way as line. I want it oversimplified – anything that could be vaguely red becomes red. It is mock insensitivity. Actual color adjustment is achieved through manipulation of size, shape and juxtaposition." (Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein, 1993, p. 12). In Sailboats III, Lichtenstein has abstracted a scene into his own synthetic construct: while traditional landscape painters rely on a willing suspension of belief, asking the beholder - at least for a moment – to accept the representation as the scene itself, Lichtenstein, by contrast, stressed the artificiality of the representation, urging us to recall not the natural landscape but a generic vista as depicted in the mass media.
In Sailboats III, the viewer's vantage point jumps from point to point and it is difficult to establish a sense of perspective. Jack Cowart remarks, "the sailboats (Lichtenstein's negative thoughts on Lyonel Feininger)...look like ruler and compass paintings, with their elements of long bisecting lines, arcs, and triangles." (Jack Cowart, Roy Lichtenstein, Roy Lichtenstein 1970-1980, New York, 1981, p. 78). Although Lichtenstein had a general distaste for Feininger he was clearly looking towards his many Cubist representations of sailboats. The theme of the sailboat has been long explored by artists dating back centuries. Thomas Buttersworth and other 19th century American and British painters frequently turned towards the sailboat as subject matter and nautical scenes of commercial schooners or naval battles were common decorations in many homes. More contemporaneous with Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol also explored the sailboat in Do it Yourself (Sailboats), 1962 from his "paint by number" series. Lichtenstein depicted the sailboats in his own unmistakable graphic style that provides the painting with its eye-catching individuality while still giving a nod to genre masters before him. Inspired by the brilliant light and reflection of the sea at his home and studio in Southampton, the pure color and clarity of composition here are quite brilliant and impossible to reproduce accurately. Above all it is in the rendering of a three-dimensional landscape in a two-dimensional graphic style with its tenacious insistence on ineluctable flatness of the picture plane that silences his antagonistic critics in demonstrating his engagement with the same formal concerns that had been the overbearing preoccupation of his greatest ancestors.
The most inventive and intellectual artists knew that the investigation of the past can lead to the most enlightened and liberating innovations of the present. In the mid-late 1970s, Lichtenstein continued to turn to Cubism and abstract subject matter eventually leading to his Futurism series. Lichtenstein brought important artists, including himself, down from their fine art plinths. He displayed aesthetic clichés in all their commonly reproduced glory, only to breathe new life into them by placing them lovingly back on the rarefied museum walls. It is fitting that Mr. Forstmann owned this magnificent work as it was originally purchased from Leo Castelli by another highly esteemed collector Carter Burden, the great philanthropist committed to civic service and a pillar of the New York high society social scene. With undeniably impeccable provenance and exceptionally skillful execution, Sailboats III is a wonderful work that successfully brings together many of the themes of Lichtenstein's career in a seminal composition of movement, geometry, and color that is unrivaled.
Oil and Magna on canvas
New York, Marlborough Gallery, Selected Works from the Collection of Carter Burden, May - June 1974, cat. no. 12, p. 17, illustrated
70 x 80 in. 177.8 x 203.3 cm.
Jack Cowart, Roy Lichtenstein 1970-1980, New York, 1981, p. 78, illustrated
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC# 668)
Carter Burden, New York (acquired from the above in February 1974)
Sotheby's New York, November 10, 1988, Lot 32
Private Collection, Los Angeles (acquired from the above)
Christie's New York, May 12, 1998, Lot 16
Acquired from the above