In retrospect, Still Life with Lobster, painted in 1972, exists as an image from the midpoint of Roy Lichtenstein's career, reflective of the painterly concerns that informed the beginning of Lichtenstein's great oeuvre as well as key shifts in style and content that expanded the scope of his investigations into the nature of painting. Within the Still-life series of the 1970s, it is also an image at a pivotal point as it retains the artist's typically graphic style and centralizing composition, while it also showcases his developing interest in perspective and planar geometry.
Lichtenstein - who along with Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and Tom Wesselmann is considered a giant of Pop art and a key figure in the continuing story of avant-garde art in 20th century America – worked in an instantly identifiable style regardless of subject matter and regardless of subtly evolving adaptations of this style. He gained initial critical attention for his apocryphal paintings sourced from comic-books and advertisements, but in hindsight this use of existing imagery is seen as the opening salvo in a long career that turned to art history and its many traditions and genres for inspiration. Essentially Lichtenstein was engaged with any form of image-making and how it translates as a sign or aesthetic object to the viewer. As Lichtenstein's focus turned to Fine Art rather than commercial art, he used canonical works from previous movements as his source imagery. The Still-lifes of the 1970s and 1980s, like the earlier ones from the 1960s, feature food and domestic items common for their time. But whereas previously the composition was centralized around a single image – an ice cream soda, a ball of twine, a golf ball – these more mature works stray a bit from the conventions of Pop Art, away from an aesthetic sympathetic to ad-like single images portrayed frontally atop blank monochromatic or Benday dot backgrounds.
The present work, executed during the same period in which Lichtenstein was experimenting in other art historical appropriations (German Expressionism, Cubism), remains devoted to a central, iconic image without renouncing complex perspective and a layered background. A quotation from a 1966 interview with David Sylvester helps to explain Pop art's insistence upon compositional focus of a centralized object. "In America," says Lichtenstein, "the biggest is always the best" (Originally recorded in January 1966 by David Sylvester in New York City for broadcast by BBC Third Programme. The interview was re-edited for publication in 1997 for David Sylvester's Some Kind of Reality, London, 1997).
With nods to both Salvador Dali's Aphrodisiac Telephone and his own cut-outs of conch and carrier shells that he pasted into his iconic black-and-white Composition books, Still Life with Lobster is rendered, in part, with Lichtenstein's characteristic Benday dots. The anachronistic allusions, paired with the telltale style, create a canvas all but predestined for reverence. Though in other works from the period, the colors don't realistically correspond to the subjects they represent, the present work portrays a scene of lifelike hues merely exaggerated to cartoonish saturation.
Compositionally, Still Life with Lobster takes most of its cues from 17th century Dutch and 18th Century American tabletop still-lifes, like those of the Peale family and Simon Luttichuys. But a lushness of depth is replaced with a lushness of surface. Gone are the brittle roses with their infinitely layered petals. Gone are the glistening citrus segments encased in bright white pith. Gone are the gleaming folds of silk drapery. In their stead, are some burls of drift wood streaked in geometric grain, and the props of summer living: a lantern, a lifesaver, a conch shell. The bold outlines, curvilinear design and bold color of Still Life with Lobster delight the eye with clarity and power. Yet in this complex design, the lobster takes center stage: jointed with its primeval armor and astonishingly red – an image redolent of luxury and the good lifestyle populated by rare acquisitions whether in a decadent painting of the 17th century or an American still-life or a Jeff Koons.
However, unlike many of his contemporaries, Lichtenstein was always more interested in the formal qualities of his imagery than in their semiotics, more interested in the way things look than what they mean. We can only assume that when Lichtenstein confessed to always being able to "find new things to paint about" he was referring to the pre-existing styles, which he appropriated with his specific brand of ironic detachment and earnest love of art history.
Oil and Magna on canvas
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein Still Lifes, May - July 2010, p. 125, illustrated in color
54 x 96 in. 137.2 x 243.8 cm.
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC# 630)
Arno Schefler, New York (acquired from the above in November 1972)
Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson, Chicago
Private Collection, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above