Defining Beauty: Sleeping Girl
Held within a swirling frame of abundant blonde hair, the weary head of flawless beauty rests upon a red pillow. Invited into her bounded domain as if through a keyhole, our gaze rests upon her profound contemplation; immersed by such elusive thoughts as can only be encountered in sleep's deepest dreams. We scan her expression for some sign to her preoccupation, but her secrets remain locked within. While our focus falls on her immediately close presence, her focus strays far away. The assuredly iconic depiction of a strikingly intimate and vulnerable moment, Sleeping Girl is a masterpiece of irresistible seduction.
Black and white, yellow and red, the composition exists through sensational graphic efficiency and brilliant color of shocking confidence. The polarized schema of the hair is rendered in sublime cadence, dramatically accentuating the flatness of the picture plane and perfectly framing the face beyond. The eponymous Lichtenstein Benday dots of the portrait are perfectly regimented to create a kintetic dynamism that in turn invests a powerful sense of indefinable tension in the subject's expression. Executed at the very height of the artist's technical prowess, Sleeping Girl is a masterpiece of irresistible seduction.
Roy Lichtenstein instinctively understood the phenomenal potential of popular imagery, and more than any artist of his generation realigned the cipher of that imagery to unveil verities behind the ever-proliferating pictorial panorama of contemporary culture in 1960s America. By so doing he revolutionized how we perceive the world around us and how, in turn, the world has subsequently been presented back unto itself. Where his great art historical counterpart Andy Warhol directly appropriated quotidian images to force issues of perception through the simple act of re-presentation, Lichtenstein's genius lay in a more subtle yet equally radical transformation. Having mastered the primary modus of industrial pictographic transmission, by almost covert means he enlisted this mass-media vocabulary to present alternate perspectives onto popcorn realities. Through this methodology he shone a brilliant light on the artificiality of the comic-book heroes and villains that are so synonymous with his art, and powerfully totemic of a new wave of pop culture. And yet, simultaneously, he also brought his paintings closer to a veritable authenticity, for the terms of their manufacture are laid entirely bare to the viewer. The extent to which Sleeping Girl is a wholly fabricated image could not have been made clearer: it is a demonstratively anti-naturalistic painting depicting a stunningly artificial heroine. However, precisely this transparency of manufacture serves to reinforce the compelling allure of her anonymous portrait. Upon viewing this painting we may think we have been seduced by Lichtenstein's girl, but in fact we have fallen in love with the honesty of Lichtenstein's image. The astounding achievement of Lichtenstein's sublime painting becomes the perfect alignment of form and function in the most elegantly influential way. While people fall in love with fictional characters every day, Sleeping Girl invites us to fall in love with the act of artistic creation itself. A critical stand against falsified aesthetic pretense and subterfuge, Sleeping Girl is the ultimate incarnation of Marshall McLuhan's legendary and exactly contemporaneous maxim: "The Medium is the Message." Roy Lichtenstein presents here a breathtakingly beautiful subject by breathtakingly beautiful means, and delivers the ultimate expression of John Keats' observation that: "What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth." (John Keats, Letter to Benjamin Bailey, 22 November 1817)
Defining the apogee of Lichtenstein's artistic innovation, Sleeping Girl is concrete embodiment of one of the most exciting art historical moments of the past century. Aesthetically sublime and conceptually radical, its enduring presence remains as ravishing today as it first appeared to Irving Blum and Bea Gersh in the Ferus Gallery in December 1964. Cherished in the Gersh Collection for almost half a century, Sleeping Girl's illustrious provenance compounds its position as a masterpiece of twentieth-century American art, and naturally worthy of the most prestigious museum collection. For this is a contemporary portrait of both the beauty and the psychology of our time. As it advances the eminent and historic arc of precedent to celebrate female beauty, Lichtenstein's canvas is timeless. By sensationally departing from all previous modes of artistic expression and inventing a new artistic lexicon, Lichtenstein's canvas also defines a new period of Art History.
1964 was the apogee of Lichtenstein's comic strip paintings, the series that propelled the artist to international fame. Lichtenstein was not merely an artist; he was an innovator, able to catapult mass-produced commercial images into the realm of fine art. His innate gift for editing found images and subsequent presentation so as to capture the telling gesture of an emotive moment defines the Pop leader's profoundly insightful understanding of the nature of perception. Twenty-two years ago Kerry Brougher explained that "Roy Lichtenstein's Sleeping Girl...clearly attacked the triumph of abstract expressionism...But the work is more than that. It is not just a painting of a girl, it is an image that can be precisely located in the comic book genre, an emblem of mass media. As such, it is not an illusion of the real, it is, unlike nearly all representational work that preceded it, not an illusion at all. Pop art's function, as Leo Steinberg suggested, was not to return to representation, but to conceive of the picture 'as the image of an image'" (Kerry Brougher in: Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Selections from the Beatrice and Philip Gersh Collection, November 1989 - March 1990, n. p.) Lichtenstein's espousal of the prosaic commonplaces 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 of twentieth-century art practice. Sleeping Girl represents the climactic 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 its stylistic blueprint. Lichtenstein never copied an image verbatim, and it is in the subtle manipulation of the images that the artist's true genius lies.
Close comparison with the source image for Sleeping Girl, taken from the graphic work of Tony Abruzzo for the story "Don't Kiss Me Again!," in the December 1964 issue of DC Comic's Girls' Romances, reveals the remarkable significance of Lichtenstein's subtle yet critical editing process. When asked to discuss the disjunction between the exaggerated emotional content of the comics and the rigidity of their style Lichtenstein answered, "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." (interview with G.R. Swenson cited in Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein, 1968, p. 9). While a cursory glance may suggest Sleeping Girl is an exact replication of the comic strip, this is very far from the truth. Lichtenstein makes a number of crucial adjustments to alter not only the composition, but also to transform fundamentally the character of his portrait and the emotional import of his image. Most obviously absent from Lichtenstein's painting is the single tear drop, gathering in the corner of the comic girl's eye, teetering on the cusp of coursing a mascara streaked line down her cheek. Also removed is any trace of her slender hand reaching up to her temple, which in the comic explains why her head is tilted to meet her fingertips. Lichtenstein's portrait is portrayed at precisely the same angle, yet without the supporting hand her face appears rather to be resting on a soft red pillow, as opposed to drooping in front of the bright red coat in the comic. This deceptively simple alteration also affects how we perceive her voluminous folds of yellow hair. In the comic, the manner in which her glossy locks fall indicates that her head is slumped forward, while the upward flick of the end of her hair implies movement and that her collapse in posture has only just occurred. By contrast, Lichtenstein's tightened focus on her face crops out the end of her golden waves of hair, and in place of a sense of movement we are presented with the undulations of hair pushed up against itself by a pillow during sleep.
The tight framing of the composition, swirl of enveloping hair and perfect square format also induces an almost vertiginous viewing experience and suggests the possibility of multiple orientations. This invitation to substitute perspectives is highly evocative of the dislocated sensation of sleep itself and the power of dreams to disorientate. This is also inherently related to the artist's working practice, as attested by Dorothy Lichtenstein: "before he even started painting in the so-called Pop art style, he designed an easel that rotated. This way he could work on a painting sideways and upside down. And he usually worked with a mirror in the background to get as much distance from the canvas as possible, so he could try to see it as a whole and in reverse." (Dorothy Lichtenstein in conversation with Jeff Koons in Exh. Cat, New York, Gagosian Gallery, Lichtenstein: Girls, 2008, p. 10).
Most subliminally impactful of all Lichtenstein's economic yet brilliant editorship of the readymade source is also the least immediately obvious. Not only does the cartoon heroine hang her head in despair as the tears gather, but her furrowed forehead, indicated by two diagonal lines extending upwards from her eyebrows, is a sure sign of an inner turmoil and angst that will remain within her however much she wants to hide from the world. By contrast, Lichtenstein's girl harbors an ulterior expression, for these simple lines are gentler and less oblique in character. This fractional adjustment suggests a more profound interior contemplation, evocative of the indeterminate emotions that occupy our sleep and far more elusive to categorization. Even without the tears the comic girl would still be immersed in sadness. Sleeping Girl has far more on her mind: intriguing and mysterious, she demands our attention and seduces our gaze, ultimately becoming the consummate muse of both artist and viewer.
Roy Lichtenstein's Girls stand as undisputed icons of Post-War American art. Few pictures, either by Lichtenstein or any of his contemporaries, subvert the heroic ideals of modern abstract painting as directly and successfully. Conceptually, they continue to fuel one of the most contentious theoretical dialogues in contemporary art: what constitutes "high" versus "low" culture; that is, what is the distinction between the fine art destined for museums as opposed to commercial advertising and media imagery that pervades our daily lives. The series of Girls is equal in importance and instant recognition to Warhol's Soup Cans and Jasper Johns' Flag. When surveying the seminal works of American art, these three artists and their chosen subject matter remain omnipotent and will continue to articulate America's cultural triumph in the Pop era. While the brilliantly objective, albeit irreverent, individuality of the Campbell's Soup Can is subverted through the repetitive uniformity of its commercial origin, no motif is more associated with Johns' pictorial language, and his rich and rewarding investigation into the epistemology of the sign, than that of the American flag. Lichtenstein's Girls are equally synonymous with the pioneering achievements of Pop Art. All three artists demonstrate brilliant facility in negotiating fine art and common currency, and the cultural landmarks they produced are as fresh and compelling today as they were to their original audience.
As Diane Waldman noted, "In isolating the female figure from her original context, Lichtenstein further magnifies society's codification of women as ornaments, positioned for the male gaze only." (Diane Waldman in Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and traveling, Roy Lichtenstein, 1993-96, p. 117). Lichtenstein's is a fundamentally contemporary painting, inherently addressing the concerns of its day. Indeed, the mere act of isolating the woman out of the context of the comic strip affords an unprecedented level of analysis. Roy Lichtenstein once stated "I had been interested in the comic strip as a visual medium for a long time before I actually used it in a painting. This technique is a perfect example of an industrial process that developed as a direct result of the need for inexpensive and quick color-printing. These printed symbols attain perfection in the hands of commercial artists through the continuing idealization of the image made compatible with commercial considerations. Each generation of illustrators makes modifications and reinforcements of these symbols, which then become part of the vocabulary of all. The result is an impersonal form. In my own work, I would like to bend this toward a new classicism." (the artist in: Michael Lobel, Image Duplicator: Roy Lichtenstein and the Emergence of Pop Art, New Haven, 2002, p. 155) Many of Lichtenstein's paintings of women from 1964 incorporate the cartoon bubble containing theatrical phrases such as, Oh, Jeff,...I love you, too...But... and Ohhh...Alright among others. When Lichtenstein eliminated the text and bubble from these paintings there was a distinct change in the effect of these paintings - they become more complex and brooding as seen in works such as Happy Tears, Frightened Girl, Seductive Girl and the present work Sleeping Girl. As John Coplans notes, "although the comic format presents stereotypes of subconscious desires and yearnings, and reeks of erotic fantasies and anxieties, Lichtenstein's dispassionate treatment cools the imagery to such an extent that his art is peculiarly devoid of surrealist qualities." (John Coplans, ed., Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1972, p. 24).
Lichtenstein's painting is inherently and breathtakingly beautiful, both in its subject and its physical facture. It encapsulates the prevalent archetype of feminine beauty that had become the socio-cultural aspiration for millions since the Second World War. The dream of looking like Sleeping Girl, or of winning the heart of Sleeping Girl, drove entire industries and billions of sales. Alfred Hitchcock populated his classic movie thrillers with a cast of divine blonde actresses - Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint and Kim Novak - who played the part of independent, sassy protagonists before invariably being rescued by Cary Grant or James Stewart and safely returned to reassuring domesticity. Regarding Roy's Girls series, Dorothy Lichtenstein has said "I think that he was portraying his idea of the dream girl" (Dorothy Lichtenstein in conversation with Jeff Koons in: Exh. Cat, New York, Gagosian Gallery, Lichtenstein: Girls, 2008, p. 15), and the compelling attraction of Sleeping Girl certainly belongs to the world of dreams. Informed by the irrational hope inspired by cinematic fantasy and comic book fiction, the character of Sleeping Girl triggers an inexplicably emotional reaction from the viewer.
And yet, through its electrifying conceptual purpose, this painting is also a deconstruction of beauty, seemingly inspired by the statement of Lichtenstein's great hero Picasso made thirty years earlier: "Academic training in beauty is a sham. We have been deceived, but so well deceived that we can scarcely get back even a shadow of the truth. The beauties of the Parthenon, Venuses, Nymphs, Narcissuses are so many lies. Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon" (Pablo Picasso in conversation with Christian Zervos, Cahiers d'Art, Paris, 1935, Vol. X, 7-10, p. 176). Sleeping Girl dares to measure beauty through the mechanical Benday dot, and is thus direct descendant of Picasso's own spectacular interrogations of the limits of beauty via the fracture of the image. Eventually, both Picasso and Lichtenstein arrive at the exact point at which their art tips between the most revolutionary revelation of the creative process, and the most powerful depiction of humanity itself.
Sleeping Girl: Contemporary Muse
Woman as Muse has lived in the shared memory of generations of artists and art lovers. From the earliest cave drawings to contemporary abstractions, the female form has been celebrated and ultimately inescapable in the visual arts. The tributaries and roots behind the development of cultural concepts are often complex, however, throughout various civilizations and centuries, art and its corollary of beauty have, without question, identified a kindred spirit in the female face and body. From this richly varied panorama of symbolic women, a handful of images will hold pride of place in the world's shared memory. Whether one thinks of the classical ideal of beauty in Venus de Milo, da Vinci's enigmatic Mona Lisa, Titian's voluptuous maidens or Picasso's wives and lovers, the female faces of Roy Lichtenstein's romance cartoon paintings are among the most compelling and dynamic mages of all.
Since their creation, the weeping, dewy eyed, frightened, arguing or sleeping women in Lichtenstein's 1960s masterpieces have remained in our collective consciousness. Lichtenstein's aesthetic practice was predicated on a thoughtful and probing treatise about the nature of art in our modern world, and it is fitting that the subject of his greatest investigations into the nature of art is the female symbol. Sleeping Girl is a tour-de-force as an archetype of Lichtenstein's blonde American ideal of beauty - his Muse, ironically sourced from the regions of print commercialism and rendered with great style into the exalted realm of fine art.
In the modern era, Pablo Picasso is perhaps the most storied example of an artist enthralled with the female muse. In his role as the 20th century Colossus who shattered boundaries of artistic invention and style, it is his endless fascination with his lovers' character and form that fueled the metamorphoses of his creative output and often led to his radical shifts and innovations. Picasso's myriad use – and abuse – of the likenesses of his lovers and wives ranges from depictions of exquisite tenderness to harrowing and tortured shapes of women cut apart and reconfigured on the canvas. Each of the women, particularly Olga Khokhlova, Marie-Thérèse Walter and Dora Maar, were catalysts for Picasso's creativity. They each stand for a different period in his career and represent the inspired evolution of a new pictorial language as his passions – ranging from obsession to anguish - became encoded within each form and figure. Picasso was a vital and well-recognized inspiration for Roy Lichtenstein, who would subsequently paint several masterpieces reinterpreting classic Picasso paintings, in order to challenge and elaborate on the modern idiom epitomized by Picasso. Stylistically, comparisons between Picasso's Le Miroir from 1932 and Lichtenstein's Sleeping Girl amply demonstrate the strong affinity between these two artists; elegantly reductive compositions ennoble simplicity of pattern and a minimal range of colors, all rendered with sinuous and bold contours. Le Rêve (1932) is another direct comparison to Lichtenstein's Sleeping Girl, as both of these hypnotic, brightly colored and loving portraits of Marie-Thérèse define Picasso's conception of painting as a desire to "discover the path followed by the brain in materializing a dream." Notably this citation was highlighted by Lichtenstein in a well-worn copy of Alfred H. Barr Jr.'s 1939 book Picasso: Forty Years of His Art (p. 15) that he kept in his studio.
Barr's book was published on the occasion of the exhibition of the same title at New York's Museum of Modern Art which opened during Lichtenstein's senior year in high school in Manhattan. Picasso would remain a touchstone for Lichtenstein, not so much for the philosophical musings of creative intent suggested by this particular highlighted passage, but as a focus for his exploration of basic aesthetic quandaries in the practice of 20th century art: the conventions of painting, the distinctions between art and nature, the role of subject in art and finally, the functions of line, color and spatial depth that were being challenged from all sides by iconoclastic modern theories. Sleeping Girl and her sister paintings of the 1960s comic book series are not so much a vessel for Lichtenstein's feelings and thoughts about specific women, as they are a vehicle for his innovative contributions to 20th century art history. The bold colors of red and yellow, the distinctive linear contours of her hair and face, the patterned use of Benday dots are all indicative of the graphic nature of his commercial source material. But they are also kindred aesthetic devices for the generalized, segmented composition and broad palette of Le Miroir and La Rêve. From 1962 to 1964, during the height of his Pop innovations and concurrent with his famed comic-inspired women paintings, Lichtenstein painted four works that directly engaged with Picasso, all of which dealt with the female as subject (Femme au chapeau [Woman in Grey]) from 1942, Les Femmes d'Alger from 1955, Femme dans un Fauteuil and Woman with Flowered Hat from 1939-40). Yet Lichtenstein chose Picasso not simply as an act of homage so much as an acknowledgment that images of Picasso's work were just as much part of the new ubiquitous nature of mass media at mid-century as comics, advertising and newspapers. As he stated "A Picasso has become a kind of popular object – one has the feeling there should be a reproduction of a Picasso in every home." (John Coplans, "Talking with Roy Lichtenstein," Artforum 5, no. 9, May 1967).
The profound shared fascination that Lichtenstein and Picasso held for paintings of women, is directly comparable to Willem de Kooning's seemingly fetishistic interest in the woman as muse in post-war American art. Willem de Kooning had staked a large claim to the role of master painter of the female form in the 1940s and 1950s, and Woman I from 1950 (Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York) is heralded as the penultimate 20th century statement about the central role of the female form as an inspiration for painterly expression and passionate brushwork. While de Kooning did occasionally use source material from magazines as evidenced by the collaged smile of bright lips and white teeth in Woman, 1950 (Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), de Kooning's painting of Woman I and related works are celebrated primarily as an emphatic declaration that the heyday of Abstract Expressionism did not preclude the role of figuration as a basic underpinning of abstracted compositions.
Later focused through the lens of Pop culture, the source of the female muse was deeply rooted within Andy Warhol's imagery. For Warhol, the stars and international media fi gures of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy were the symbolic and generic epitome of beauty and posterity. Their physical loveliness, grace, humor, bawdiness, flirtatiousness, love of fashion or jewels, jet-set life and – above all – their fame were emblematic of the pulsing vitality and international symbolism of post-war America. Posterity and optimism were an intoxicating prospect after the deprivations and destruction of World War II, and American consumerism and culture were poised to lead the way toward a more prosperous future. Along with Lichtenstein's happy homemakers and lovelorn heroines, Marilyn, Liz and Jackie were potent purveyors of this buoyant mood, and between them they portrayed all aspects of American womanhood from motherhood to sensuous temptress to childlike innocence.
Yet it was their defeats and losses which attracted Warhol to his female sirens, and through his art and cool appreciative gaze, they achieved their ultimate symbolic roles as Tragic Goddesses. Warhol had a keen insight into the ulterior depths of the "American Dream", the superficial version of which had so captivated the 1950s and 1960s. Real life will always be at odds with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and the fictions of the media personality. Although Marilyn, Liz and Jackie were leading ladies of the dream factory, Warhol was drawn to the drama beneath the surface and behind the scenes. Since death was a core theme in Warhol's aesthetic, Marilyn Monroe's 1963 suicide and psychic struggles elevated her to primary status among Warhol's Muses. His image of the blonde sex symbol, taken from an early fi lm that launched her career and status as the fantasy of the American male, was a beguiling and sumptuously beautiful image. The jewel-like tones of the background, her face, her makeup and, above all her luscious blonde hair have captured a lasting place in the international lexicon of female and cultural symbolism. In masterpieces such as Shot Light Blue Marilyn, Warhol's transformation of this celluloid American fiction into a universal stereotype is complete.
Lichtenstein's paintings of women and his war hero paintings are equally emphatic statements of American identity, and the heightened narratives and tensions of these characters were a primary reason for their inclusion into his oeuvre. As Dorothy Lichtenstein recounted to Jeff Koons in the interview for the Gagosian Gallery's 2008 exhibition, Lichtenstein's Girls, "[Roy] specifi cally picked images and cartoons that had a lot of emotional charge – the archetypal idea of the woman disappointed by love, the war hero in the heat of battle. These are typically American; and it is a typically American way of glorifying a subject." (p. 10). Yet she also acknowledged the seductive undertones that give paintings such as Sleeping Girl an erotic undertone, despite the cool manner of Lichtenstein's style and technique in depicting his "dream girl. ...Roy adored women. ... He may have even picked these women because he was so reserved in his own being that this was a way of latching on to the emotional highs and lows of life." (Ibid., p. 15). Unlike Warhol's muses who existed in real life, Lichtenstein's "Girls" are entirely of the imagination and exist only in the realm of his oeuvre. Sleeping Girl is a vessel for both the artist's ideal woman and ours.
The power of the female in the visual arts and in culture – whether Venus, fertility goddess, odalisque, domestic goddess or sexual partner – is as strong in mid-20th century as it was in more classical times. When Robert Rauschenberg famously stated that he worked in the "gap between art and life" and appropriated objects and imagery from his everyday life into his canvases and drawings, two classic depictions of Venus at her mirror by Diego Velàzquez and Peter Paul Rubens were part of his lexicon. Both Rauschenberg and the explosively inventive Yves Klein went so far as to create works using the female body as a tool or paintbrush. Yet the overriding power of the female in art, even for the Contemporary Muse, rests in the power of the image and no one understood this as deeply and eloquently as Roy Lichtenstein when he chose to depict his American blonde.
Oil and Magna on canvas
Pasadena, Pasadena Art Museum; Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, Roy Lichtenstein, April - July 1967, cat. no. 28, p. 43, illustrated
Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Selections from the Beatrice and Philip Gersh Collection, November 1989 - March 1990, fig. 16, illustrated in color
36 x 36 in. 91.5 x 91.5 cm.
John Coplans, ed., Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1972, p. 23 (text reference)
Tony Hendra, Brad '61: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, New York, 1993, pl. no. 89, n.p., illustrated in color (image reversed)
Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1964