Still Life with Green Vase, 1972, renders an idealized still life in the highly stylized manner that defined Roy Lichtenstein's artistic career; a career marked by an unprecedented ability to unlock the beauty from the pictorial conventions of ubiquitous, everyday images. Standing at the intersection of popular culture and high art, Still Life with Green Vase aptly demonstrates the facility with which Lichtenstein negotiated between the tenets of Fine Art and the imagery of common currency.
Lichtenstein first attempted the still life as subject matter briefly in his 1961-62 paintings of single objects, such as Tire, 1962. Placed against a flat monochromatic background and rendered in black and white, Tire is a bold example of Lichtenstein's early forays into the stark, graphic style common to print advertisements. Returning to the still life in 1971, Lichtenstein's later canvases depict more complex compositions yet retain the highly graphic quality of his earlier works.
The crisp, yet simplistically rendered objects of Still Life with Green Vase exist in a hyper-flattened plane. There is no real sense of depth, only slight overlapping to distinguish the sequence of objects in the still life - vase in front of curtain, fruit in front of vase. This lack of depth, the heavy black contour lines of the major forms and the uniform color all heighten the graphic qualities of the painting. The simplicity of Lichtenstein's technique lends his work a fresh vitality and vibrancy while the planar surface remains constant. Primary colors of yellow and blue and the titular green prevail on the surface, pushed forward, yet simultaneously broken down through Lichtenstein's employment of Benday dots. "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." (Roy Lichtenstein interviewed by G.R. Swenson cited in Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein, 1968, p. 9)
At the onset of this artistic practice, Lichtenstein magnified and transferred his images by hand in a painstaking process that at once removed all the expressionistic detail of brushwork, further divesting the image of naturalistic representation by heightening the heavy stylization. The extensive use of the regularized Benday dot throughout the expanse of the picture plane simulates a specific type of widely used printing technology.
The Benday dots act as a veil of color over the surface, a coded reference to dimension and shadow. This device is of course highly abstracted by the artist. Working in concert, the structurally strong lines and graduated succession of Benday dots draw together the individual objects, textures and colors into a single entity. This reminds the viewer that, in the final analysis, what we look at is only a painting made up only of dots and lines. The fruit, drapery, paintbrushes and vase all become one object - simply the painted canvas.
Diagrammatic to the extreme, the composition of Still Life with Green Vase is articulated by the use of bold, highly legible black outlines which dramatically define and separate the various objects and picture planes. The artist used the white ground to evoke volume, as in the reflections on the curvilinear form of the green vase and the billowing drapery. Indeed, Lichtenstein had made works in the early 1960s, which were interpretations of works by Pablo Picasso, and simplified planes of monotone color blocks, outlined with a heavy black line can be seen in Picasso's La Casserole Émaillée, 1945. Just as in Still Life with Green Vase, the back edge of the table top, though at first glance a level line, is in fact a good deal higher on the left than on the right, a common trompe de l’oeil employed by Picasso.
Here, though not an interpretation of any specific work, Still Life with Green Vase seems a conflagration of a Picasso still life. Lichtenstein incorporated several visual techniques employed by Picasso and embarked on the classic notion of the still life, making art about art. Commenting on his use of everyday objects, Picasso stated: "I want to tell something by means of the most common object: for example, a casserole, any old casserole, the one everybody knows. For me it is a vessel in the metaphorical sense, just like Christ's use of parables. He had an idea: he formulated it in parables so that it would be acceptable to the greatest number. That's the way I use objects..." (Gertje R. Utley, Picasso: the Communist Years, New Haven, 2000, p. 71) Lichtenstein's idea of making art about art was thus not new, but in this painting, his technique and concept become more programmatic and dedicated. In a sense, Lichtenstein's oeuvre can be seen as a mirror held up against society: an analogue for the way we live and the objects with which we surround ourselves.
Oil and magna on canvas
56 x 40 3/4 in. 143 x 102 cm.
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC# 628)
Private Collection, Italy (acquired from the above in September 1972)
James Mayor Gallery, London (1984)
Malmberg Fine Art, Malmo (acquired from the above in 1985)
Thomas Segal Gallery, Boston
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1986