Description: PROPERTY OF A DISTINGUISHED PRIVATE COLLECTOR
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BLACK AND WHITE SUNRISE
55 1/2 x 68 in. 141 x 172.8 cm.
signed and dated 64 on the reverse
oil and magna on canvas
Ben Birillo, New York (a gift from the artist)
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC# 184)
Acquired by the present owner from the above in February 1966
Spoleto, Palazzo Collicola, Landscapes by Nine Americans, June - July 1965 (organized by the MoMA International Council)
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Roy Lichtenstein, September - November 1969, cat. no. 29 (size incorrect)
Stuart Preston, "Rear and Advance Guard Marching", The New York Times, November 1, 1964, n.p., illustrated
Diane Waldman, Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1971, pl. no. 92, p. 245, illustrated (size incorrect)
In the 1940s and 1950s, American artists followed the modernist canon of abandoning traditional artistic genres and styles in favour of innovation that shattered long-held tenets and startled the art public. Realistic subject matter, such as still-life, portraiture, landscape and narrative paintings gave way to abstraction and the expression of the inner impulse of the artist. Younger artists of the 1960s, such as Roy Lichtenstein, had to find their own radical means to challenge and innovate. With a great sense of irony, many chose to subvert the equation, turning it on its head with a puckish sense of independence. In the case of Lichtenstein, he returned to realism by painting people and things, but maintained a cool distance by choosing the images from a secondary source; a still-life may be adopted from a painting by Matisse while his portraits of women were taken from comics and advertisements. With a canny sense of design and composition, Lichtenstein used these sources as an arena to investigate the mechanics of art, rendering the act of art itself as the ultimate subject of his oeuvre. Black and White Sunrise from 1964 is an early and classic example of Lichtenstein's bold choices, as he proceeded to paint many of the artistic genres of the past, but in his wholly unique graphic style and as a commentary on our perception of art.
Landscapes are a tradition both of High Art and a standard motif of Low Art. Landscapes are a classic genre of narrative realism in the Fine Art realm, particularly meaningful in the context of Manifest Destiny and the idealized vistas in American art of the 19th century. Equally, the sun on the horizon is loaded with cultural references and messages that are easily accessible from everyday sources such as movies, literature, comics and advertising -- the rising sun is a new day bringing hope while the setting sun is a happy ending, a ``riding off into the sunset''. But Lichtenstein manipulated the image in Black and White Sunrise by choice of composition, palette and graphic technique in order to conflate our assumptions of both content and style.
With the comic strip and media images of his Pop Art, Lichtenstein jettisoned the emphasis on the artist's touch of Abstract Expressionism, in favour of the pictorial vocabulary of mechanical reproduction. With its immaculate finish, Black and White Sunrise is the epitome of his early hand-painted process that removed all expressive detail. With schematised flat lines and regularised Benday dots of black and white that recall advertising techniques, Black and White Sunrise interrogates the ironic disjunction between the object and its representation which is the hallmark of Lichtenstein's greatest work. The synthetic style in Black and White Sunrise denies the fictive reality of the image, confirming the flatness of the picture plane, reminding us that this is an image of a reproduced image, not of the scene itself. In keeping with his greatest single object paintings of the early 1960s, Lichtenstein restricts his palette to black and white, adding further artificiality to the image, just as in his masterpiece Mirror #1 of 1969. As with the Mirror series, Lichtenstein is depicting an object of great implied death -- the landscape is a wide open vista while the mirror reflects the room it inhabits. Yet in each case, Lichtenstein presents us with a flattened two dimensional representation as a cerebral, formal exploration that questions the nature of perception.
With his composition and keen sense of optics in Black and White Sunrise, Lichtenstein orchestrates yet another irony. After establishing the artifice of his image, Lichtenstein proceeds to bring a subtle, subversive sense of depth and volume to what we initially perceive as a flat schematic plane. The painting has the visual punch of Lichtenstein's Pop Art style with the black Benday dots and corresponding white, unpainted dots in close conjunction. They vary from a regimented yet open pattern in the sky, while the sea and clouds have an overlapping, close density of dots. In both cases, the black vibrates within the white, optically translating the flat image into a more three dimensional state of both black and white dots, similar to the Post-Impressionism of Paul Signac and Georges Seurat. The composition is further animated by the horizontal bands of waves and clouds, alternating between sold white, Benday dots and solid black, juxtaposed over strong white diagonals that fan out across what we cannot help but perceive as the far distance. Optically, our eye begins to oscillate between the play of black and white, shape and non-shape, near and far. Distances, shadows, tonalities of gray all begin to bring an undeniable sense of perspective, depth and volume that belies the fictive nature of the image and the ineluctable flatness of the picture plane. The viewer's mind does not dwell on the romantic connotations of a colourful, resonant sunrise; rather we interrogate the artist's intentions and his means of achieving them.