-an excerpt from an article by Carol Salus, retired associate professor of Art History at Kent State University and lifelong friend of Roy Lichtenstein
In his pre-pop works, Roy Lichtenstein, one of the most cerebral, internationally significant and prolific artist of the past century, worked in a variety of media. Prior to his emergence on the New York art scene in the early 1960’s, Lichtenstein developed an impressive early oeuvre. While some of the paintings and prints from these early years are in permanent collections, scholarship, other than Ernst Busche’s 1988 essential study Roy Lichtenstein: Das Frühwerk 1942-1960, has yet to be completed in terms of thorough examination. There are two decades of paintings, works on paper, prints, drawings, sculpture, jewellery and even mosaic tile tables created by Lichtenstein before his career as a Pop artist was launched. While he lived in Cleveland (1951-1957) I was fortunate to now him and receive several works he made, among them a mosaic table top (ca. 1955). Mosaics, as will be shown in this discussion, reappear years later in his career.
Born in 1923, he and his younger sister Renee, were raised in an upper middle-class family on the upper West Side of Manhattan. His mother, to whom Roy was particularly close and whose wonderful sense of humor he inherited, was a homemaker. She died in 1991 at age 96. His father, who died in 1946, was a real estate broker who specialized in managing garage properties and parking lots. As a boy Roy developed a strong interest in drawing, and at age 15 he made a firm decision to be an artist.
Roy Lichtenstein was a public school student until he was 12; then he attended the Franklin School, a private academy from which he graduated in 1940. When he was 14 years old he began taking Saturday morning classes at the Parsons School of Design. After his senior years in high school, he enrolled in a summer class at the Art Students League taught by the American Realist painter Reginald Marsh.
He enrolled at Ohio State University in 1940 where his mentor Hoyt Sherman had a formidable influence on his development. Sherman developed experimental approaches to art education. Lichtenstein repeatedly acknowledged his former teacher for encouraging him “how to go about learning to look”. In 1943, a year before hi graduation, Lichtenstein was drafted into the army. He trained as a pilot and served in France and England. During his years in the military, he was assigned to enlarging cartoon images for the army newspaper Stars and Stripes. After the war, Lichtenstein, now under the GI Bill, returned to Ohio State University to complete his bachelor of Fine Arts degree in June 1946.
In August 1946 he entered the graduate program at Ohio State University and joined the Fine Arts department as an instructor. In March 1949 he received *an MFA degree from Ohio State University. In June 1949 he married Isabel Wilson (1921-1980) who worked in a cooperative art gallery in Cleveland. The huge postwar enrollment of college students under the GI Bill started to taper off by 1951, and in late summer, he, along with several other faculty members, was denied tenure.
In 1951 the couple moved to Cleveland, where they had friends and lived there for the next six years. Isabel, an interior decorator who specialized in modern design, had steady work. She introduced her clientele to Noguchi lamps, Jack Lenor Larsen fabrics, Eero Saarinen chair designs and Jens Risom furniture. Until 1957, Lichtenstein held different temporary jobs, most lasting about six months each-commercial art and design jobs, including: teaching drawing at the Cooper Union School, a commercial art school where he had to teach how to exactly represent a certain product; working as an engineering draftsman for product and process development for the Republic Steel Corporation (he had taken engineering drawing courses at Ohio State), decorating display windows at Halle’s Department store: drawing black and white dials for Hickok Electrical Instrument Company; and making project models at an architectural firm. he also designed furniture in Cleveland. He would work for six months or so, then take several months ooff to paint. He exhibited works during this period in both Ohio and New York City. These experiences in illustration during his years in Cleveland eased the later transition into his renowned Pop images.
Lichtenstein obscured his pre-Pop career with few exceptions. For this reason the study of some decorated tile tables and their context within his development is important. In his 1988 prodigious study of Lichtenstein’s early work, Ernst Busche astutely wrote that both the painter and his art dealer Leo Castelli were “more than a little responsible for the fact that our knowledge… is so incomplete” because of their conviction “that only the Pop work represents the “real” Lichtenstein.” Seldom presented to the public, these early works were relegated to a past Lichtenstein generally preferred not to discuss. Furthermore, Busche has noted that the artist was mostly not able or willing to answer questions about specific dates, titles or source images.
Ernst Busche came to my home when he was researching Lichtenstein’s large early oeuvre for his future book. The presences of a mosaic tile table was a surprise to him. Although few of these tables are known, Lichtenstein made them for clients with whom Isabel was working as a decorator. I later called him in Germany in 2005, and he was still fascinated by the discovery of these tables and had no new information about them.
The tiles are smalti, handmade glass tesserae produced in relatively small quantities according to classic Venetian traditions, and designed by the direct method. The table top is 35.5 a 1.3 x 41 cm. the butterfly is comprised of green triangular wings outlined in pale yellow and a pale yellow triangular body. Its antennae and head are outlined in black and blue tiles. The artist’s interest in abstraction is seen in the flat treatment of the central frontal image and the puzzle-like forms around it. The insect is surrounded by a variety of bold interlocking geometric shapes in delineated areas of blue, green, grey and blended colours, and black tiles.
Highlighting the Butterfly image, there are single reddish-orange tiles scattered throughout the picture plane. They are like tiny squares of warm color in an otherwise cool palette. These small red tiles in terms of compositional placement seem to fore-shadow the use of Lichtenstein’s recognizable benday dots. The specks of color of the mosaic tiles are purely decorative in intent. The total image seen in the butterfly mosaic is one of simplicity-it is one of considered choices.
While the date of this butterfly mosaic is from the mid 1950’s, earlier in the decade Lichtenstein magnified insects in both his works on canvas and paper. Insect with Umbrella, 1950, a lithograph, Beetle with a Lollipop, 1950, The Bug, 1950, Untitled (Insect with Man), 1950-all oil paintings indicate his witty and personal approach to art. Later in his career he would magnify objects from comics, yellow page advertisements, newspapers, etc.
Another mosaic table top show’s Lichtenstein’s use of a more limited palette and different design. A pair of tables from a private collection are decorated in smalti tiles in bands of varying widths. The colours are light grey, dark grey, white, black and red. The tables in term of pattern can be related to some of Lichtenstein’s most abstract paintings-his large scale multi-patterned Mirror paintings which are designed to imitate the play of light. In these vast paintings to indicate identification of the complete surface of the canvas with the surface of a multi-paneled mirror, he painted bold colour bands. For example, in The Mirror in Six Panels, 1971, unmodulated bands of red, yellow and white are complimented by diagonal sections and vertical bands, a few touches of black and sliver of blue. This canvas and others in this series are all about reflections and shadows in which these ephemeral subtleties have been turned into his own system of codes and panels of colour. These works, which have been identified as rivaling the large-scale Color Field paintings and shaped canvases of the 1960’s, are significantly prefigures in these early mosaic table tops of the 1950’s. Most of the other tile tables Lichtenstein made during those years to accompany his wife’s interior decorating jobs appear to be missing. Four decades later Lichtenstein returned to the use of ceramic tiles. Tiles delineate all of the brush stroke-like facial features and circular support of the female bust in Barcelona Head, 1992. Part of a public-arts program in Barcelona, this sculpture was a major commission for the Summer Olympics. Garry Agpar in Public Art and the Remaking of Barcelona wrote: “it will be the first work of the artist has ever done with ceramic tiles. As with the Miro and Pepper projects, the use of ceramics is a deliberate linkage with Gaudi and Spanish tradition.” Not all parts of the quoted statements above are true.
Barcelona’s political leaders as far back as 1980 wanted to create an image for Barcelona as a “world class city” as a kind of “capital” of the western Mediterranean. In 1980, the municipality launched a program of art and parks “espaces urbans), which pre-dated the announcement of a winning Olympic bid in 1986. Then the choice in 1986 of Barcelona to host the 1992 Oympics-the 25th Summer Games was a milestone for the city’s artistic development. Sculpture was among the many transformations the city would undergo in preparation for what would be a major constructive and remodeling. This involved a massive commitment to outdoor sculpture. It is estimated that since the early 1980’s, $6.4 billion was spent on all aspects of the city’s urban renewal, including art. Local officials claim that between 1983 and 1987 more than $50 million was spent specifically on parks and outdoor sculpture.
More than 50 Olympic sculptures were commissioned by Catalan, Spanish and foreign artists, and many were integrated with new developments and spaces. Pasquall Maragall, mayor of Barcelona during this period, summarized the art-and-parks program: the objective was a two fold one, which we defined as “monumentalizing the periphery”: on the one hand it involved taking art to the streets and squares of districts that had traditionally lacked sculptural elements, and on the other ensuring that this art would establish direct links with it’s surroundings in order to improve them.”
Robert Hughs, art critic of Time, described Barcelona’s sculpture program as “the most ambitious project of it’s kind that any government of a 20th century city has tried.” To minimally further elaborate, among the many famous non-American artists commissioned to participate in the public-art-program were Anthony Caro, Antoni Tapies and Edourdo Chillida who brought contemporary sculpture to the streets while Rebecca Horn’s towering minimalist sculpture looms over a beach.