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Sinking Sun
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Sinking Sun
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Sinking Sun

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About the item

One of the defining works of Roy Lichtenstein’s stellar career, Sinking Sun is an authoritative masterpiece which occupies a peerless position both within the artist’s prodigious oeuvre and within the wider context of American Pop Art. Executed in 1964, it stands at the apogee of the comic strip paintings which shot Lichtenstein to international fame in the early 1960s. Bold in ambition and scale, Sinking Sun demonstrates the artist’s complete mastery of the mechanics of impact that he culled from the mass-media and witnesses the distillation of his instantly recognisable, highly distinctive comic-book-derived iconography that he honed in the earlier comic strip paintings. The centerpiece of the Roy Lichtenstein: Landscapes exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1964, Sinking Sun was acquired by Dennis and Brooke Hopper and for many years was the crown jewel of their collection, gracing the walls of their home at 1712 North Crescent Heights, Los Angeles – the literal backdrop to one of the most well-known celebrity duos of 1960s America. An iconic image of a quintessentially American landscape full of hope and nostalgia, Sinking Sun has itself become an icon of the cultural landscape from which it originated.\n\nAlongside Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein’s espousal of the prosaic commonplace of popular culture - both in style and frame of reference - and his alchemy of the mass-produced visual qualities of ‘base’ commercial images into poetic pictorial elements worthy of Fine Art, is unequivocally one of the most original innovations and crowning achievements of twentieth-century art practice. Sinking Sun is the endpoint of Lichtenstein’s most acclaimed and sustained body of work, painted between 1961 and 1965, which looked to the low-brow, vapid, cult comic literature to provide both its imagery and its stylistic blueprint. Jettisoning the emphasis on the artist’s touch – the indexical link to the artist that had played such a vital role in the semiotics of Abstract Expressionism – Lichtenstein, alongside Warhol, sought a pictorial vocabulary embedded in modes of mechanical reproduction. Like Gustave Courbet a century earlier, Lichtenstein sought freedom from what he deemed to be the dominant and academic mode of painting of the day through recourse to vulgar subject matter presented in a vernacular style on a pedestal formerly reserved for high art.  In so doing he forced a critical reappraisal of the aesthetic potential of the quotidian modes of commercial illustration.\n\nUnlike Warhol, who pioneered the silkscreen process to transfer his images to canvas, Lichtenstein at the start magnified and transferred his images by hand in a painstaking process that insistently removed all the expressionistic detail of brushwork, further divesting the image of naturalistic representation by heightening the heavy stylization of the comic book source. “I want my painting to look as if it has been programmed. I want to hide the record of my hand.” (Roy Lichtenstein interviewed by John Coplans cited in Exh. Cat. Pasadena, Art Museum, Roy Lichtenstein, 1967, p.12). This systematic and detached process invited accusations from Lichtenstein’s hostile critics of image duplication: the rote copying of arbitrarily gleaned trite images. However, Lichtenstein never copied an image wholesale and it is in the subtle manipulation of the images that Lichtenstein’s true genius lies. As the artist comments, the difference is often not great but it is crucial: “It becomes a very exaggerated, a very compelling symbol that has almost nothing to do with the original”. (Ibid, p. 12)  As one can see by examining the comic book page for Heart Throbs, a DC Superman National Comics issue in comparison to the Sussex, another 1964 Landscape painting, the artist did not borrow a comic panel in its entirety. He would slice out a cropped section – in this case the horizon of rolling hills, clouds and sky – that is glimpsed behind the dialogue balloons of a couple in deep discussion. The horizon is a distant detail in the overall image, but Lichtenstein sliced it from the page and focused on this edited image for his composition. In a similar manner, Lichtenstein chose to highlight the upper right corner of a comic panel from another issue of Heart Throbs for the composition of the romantic painting Kiss with Clouds (1964). In this case, the image of a kissing couple is truncated so that we see their closed eyes but not their lips, with the background of sky and clouds playing a more prominent role in the composition than in the original comic panel. Such conscious artistic choices denote the high level of thought and careful consideration that Lichtenstein brought to the image he chose to convey on canvas, contradicting any notion that his was a rote selection of given images.\n\nWhat fascinated Lichtenstein about the comic strip subject matter was the disjunction between their exaggerated emotional content and the rigid conventionality of their style. “I was very excited about and interested in the highly emotional content yet detached, impersonal handling of love, hate, war etc., in these cartoon images… It is an intensification, a stylistic intensification of the excitement which the subject matter has for me; but the style is, as you say, cool. One of the things a cartoon does is to express violent emotion and passion in a completely mechanical and removed style”. (Roy Lichtenstein interviewed by G. R. Swenson cited in Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein, 1968, p.9) It is this fundamental paradox between subject and style, an ongoing concern throughout Lichtenstein’s entire oeuvre, which the artist interrogated with such aplomb in the comic-strip works.\n\nLike the artist's greatest works of the period, Sinking Sun harnessed the rigorous stylistic order and overwhelming graphic clarity of the comic strip while simultaneously mimicing the modes of mechanical reproduction. Lichtenstein’s palette is reduced to the core primary colours of red, yellow and blue which are kept as close as possible in feeling, texture and pitch to those used in advertising. As the artist has said: “I use colour in the same way as line. I want it oversimplified – anything that could be vaguely red becomes red. It is mock insensitivity. Actual colour adjustment is achieved through manipulation of size, shape and juxtaposition”.  (Ibid, p. 12) The extensive use of the regularised Benday dot throughout the broad expanse of the picture plane simulates on a monumental scale a specific type of widely used printing technology. Diagrammatic to the extreme, the composition is articulated by the use of bold black highly legible outlines which dramatically define and separate the four horizontal registers of land, horizon, cloud and sky. In places, the Benday dot is liberated from this containing black line and the artist uses the white ground to evoke volume, as in the curvilinear forms of the billowing cumulus cloud, which recall the ebbing waves of Drowning Girl of the previous year.\n\nUnlike many of his works from this period which adapted and modified a specific source image or combined multiple sources into a single image, Sinking Sun depicts a generic, clichéd image that verges on the kitsch. Clearly derived from the comic strip, this traditional topos of romantic literature is conventionally depicted in the final frame of both romance and war comic strips, drawing the plot to a close and symbolizing closure and the restoration of order and harmony. This is not an actual landscape, rather it is the stereotype of a fictive landscape - one that is quintessentially optimistic and American. The cliche of `riding off into the sunset' spoke of the promise of happiness and success, as well as the providential abundance of the American frontier and the American dream. Because the stereotype is so strong and so indelibly ingrained into a shared public consciousness, we readily recognise the image just as the beholder instantly recognises the landscape in Temple of Apollo, painted the same year, even if they have never visited Greece. By reducing all extraneous pictorial detail and traces of narrative to an absolute minimum (note the absence of gulls here that are present in other landscapes of the same period), Lichtenstein bestows on Sinking Sun an emblematic fixity that transcends the here and now to create a monolithic image of monumental and enduring presence. What is so powerful in Lichtenstein’s most accomplished paintings is that they are more like comics than the originals from which they derive. Through Lichtenstein’s process of manipulation and reframing, his image of the closing sunset comes closer to the Platonic ideal of comic book style than the comic book source. So powerful is Sinking Sun that it has been subsumed back into the media from which it originated as the hyperbolic archetype of the comic strip genre.\n\nHowever, Lichtenstein’s primary interest in the motif of the landscape resides in the jarring tension established between the synthetic style and the natural phenomena that is being depicted, which pushes to its logical conclusion the disjunction between the object and its representation that is at the core of his practice. As the artist has stated: “There is something humorous about doing a sunset in a solidified way, especially the rays, because a sunset has little or no specific form. It is like the explosions. It’s true that they may have some kind of form at any particular moment, but they are never really perceived as defined shape… It makes something ephemeral completely concrete.” (Lichtenstein interviewed by John Coplans cited in Exh. Cat., Pasadena, Art Museum, Roy Lichtenstein, 1967, p. 15). Even though the source image is a derivative of the comic strip, it is a strictly three dimensional motif that undergoes the same formulaic process of simplification and schematization as the more overtly two-dimensional comic-strip images. The rolling hills and expanse of sky, with all its permutations of light and dark, shadow and reflection, are reduced to a flat amalgam of lines, shapes and colours; its nuanced organic forms become rigid and geometric and nature’s disorder is ironed out to become a highly structured arrangement. Lichtenstein has abstracted nature 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, stresses the artificiality of the representation, urging us to recall not the natural landscape but a generic landscape as depicted in the mass media.\n\nAbove 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. As Diane Waldman has commentated, “Sinking Sun, an obvious cliché of a landscape, is among the most successful of [Lichtenstein’s] landscape paintings, largely because it strikes such an effective balance among its subject, the conventions of the comic strip and the demands of pure painting. By stressing the artificiality of the comic-strip derived landscape, Lichtenstein proposed a new form of landscape painting. The predetermined fiction of the comic strip enabled him to present the illusionistic image of the landscape in terms that confirm the fictive reality of the picture plane. As he had in the past, Lichtenstein was able to subvert the representational subject matter by belying its reality and conforming instead to the reality of a reproduction and, ultimately, the even more fundamental reality of the canvas.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Roy Lichtenstein, 1994, p. 131).\n\nStanding at the intersection of popular culture and high art, Sinking Sun aptly demonstrates the facility with which Lichtenstein negotiated between Fine Art and images of common currency. In a large part the initial potency of Sinking Sun derived from the cultural shock of scrutinizing for the first time a spectacle so common that we have always closed our eyes to it; Lichtenstein’s skill resided in his ability to unlock the beauty within the pictorial conventions of ubiquitous, everyday images. However, like Jasper John’s Flag, itself a metaphorical landscape of stars, sky and limitless American horizons, Sinking Sun has become a timeless American icon, as fresh and compelling today as it was to its original audience. Exceptional for its rarity, Sinking Sun is one of the few unequivocal cultural landmarks of the twentieth century, making this the rarest of auction moments.\nSigned and dated 64 on the reverse
US
NY, US
US

medium

Oil and magna on canvas

creator

Roy Lichtenstein

dimensions

68 x 80 in. 172.7 x 203.2 cm.

exhibition

New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein: Landscapes, October – November 1964 Los Angeles, Ferus Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein, November - December 1964 Tokyo, National Museum of Modern Art; Kyoto, National Museum of Modern Art; New Delhi, Lalit Kala Gallery, Rabindra Bhavan; Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria; Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Two Decades of American Painting, October 1966 - August 1967 New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Kansas City, Nelson-Atkins Museum; Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art; Seattle Art Museum; Columbus, OH, Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Roy Lichtenstein, September 1969 – August 1970, cat. no. 36, p. 51, illustrated New York, Blum Helman Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein: Pop Masterpieces 1961 - 1964, May – June 1987, cat. no. 11, illustrated in color New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; Munich, Haus der Kunst; Hamburg, Deichtorhallen Hamburg; Brussels, Palais des Beaux Arts; Columbus, Wexner Center for the Arts, Roy Lichtenstein, October 1993 – January 1996, cat. no. 116, p. 130, illustrated in color Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Munich, Haus der Kunst, Regarding Beauty: A View of the Late Twentieth Century, October 1999 - April 2000, cat. no. 36, p. 153, illustrated in color and as the frontispiece

literature

David Whitney, Leo Castelli: Ten Years, New York, 1967, illustrated (installation shot at Leo Castelli Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein: Landscapes, 1964) Diane Waldman, Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1971, pl. no. 94, illustrated in color John Coplans, ed., Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1972, p. 43, illustrated ``Roy Lichtenstein: representante de hoy ante el manana'', Fascinacion (Venezuela), 1975, Year 2, no. 1, p. 37, illustrated in color Lawrence Alloway, Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1983, p. 52, fig. no. 50, illustrated Contemporary Great Masters: Roy Lichtenstein, Tokyo, 1992, pl. no. 16, illustrated in color "Two Decades of American Painting", Asahi Gurafu, Tokyo, October 20, 1966, p. 42, illustrated in color Dana Micucci, ``A Contemporary Eye'', Architectural Digest, vol. 54, November 1997, p. 204 & 206, illustrated in color Smithsonian Magazine, October 1999, illustrated in color Peter Noever, ed., Dennis Hopper: A System of Moments, London, 2001, p. 113, illustrated Dennis Hopper, 1712 North Crescent Heights: Dennis Hopper Photographs 1962-1968, New York, 2001, illustrated (Brooke Hopper with the present work) Michael Lobel, Image Duplicator, Roy Lichtenstein and the Emergence of Pop Art, New Haven, 2002, fig. no. 74, p. 116, illustrated

provenance

Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC# 176) Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles Mr. and Mrs. Dennis Hopper, Los Angeles (acquired from the above in October 1964) Brooke Hayward Hopper, Los Angeles Acquired by the present owner from the above circa 1974

signedDate

Signed and dated 64 on the reverse

creator_nationality_dates

1923 - 1997


*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.

*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.


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