By J. SCOTT ORR September 21, 2023
It looks from a distance like a typical piece by pop art progenitor Roy Lichtenstein, a deco-styled cup of coffee, with narrow wisps of steam wafting toward the sky, rendered in yellow, black and blue. But a closer examination reveals tiny arrows and notations in pencil: ⅛ inch near, ½ inch far, set back ¼ inch from N.
It is with these cryptic notes jotted on the three-foot tall coffee and steam image that the sculpture Cup and Saucer II was created by Lichtenstein in 1977. The final work is nearly four feet tall, in painted bronze and though it stands atop a flat saucer base, it is not exactly a three-dimensional depiction of a cup of coffee. It’s more like a painted image that has slipped the bonds of the two-dimensional canvas to stand defiantly on its own.
Legendary art dealer Irving Blum calls these Lichtenstein works “drawings in space,” a description that has been echoed by others over the years. Blum, the art dealer whose essential Ferus gallery first brought pop art to Los Angeles in the early 1960s, is curator of the new show Lichtenstein Remembered at Gogosian’s Madison Avenue gallery. It features some 20 sculptures, along with a number of framed studies like the one of Cup and Saucer II, that were created from 1970 until 1996, a year before the artist’s death.
Lichtenstein, who would have turned 100 on October 27, is of course best known for his comic book inspired paintings that mimic disposable printed matter through the use of Ben-Day dots as in the masterpieces Whaam!, Drowning Girl and Look Mickey. But these rarely seen sculptures reveal another dimension of the artist.
Blum sat down last week with Lichtenstein’s widow, Dorothy Lichtenstein, amid nine of the statues and three studies, to discuss the artist, the sculptures and pop art in general. The two sat before a life-sized mural of Living Room from Lichtenstein’s The Interiors series, creating the illusion that they were not just talking about his art, but were part of it.
Pointing to the study of Cup and Saucer II across the room, Blum, now in his 90s but strong of voice and clear of memory, declared: “That big drawing in the back? If you look very closely at it, you’ll see Roy’s notes. He made notes of everything he particularly wanted, and that drawing illustrates that point.”
Lichtenstein, who once said “the importance of art is in the process of doing it,” used a four-part process to create the sculptures, beginning with the annotated drawings. From these, sculptor Carlos Ramos, made wooden maquettes. From the wooden scale models, molds were produced by Tallix Foundry (now UAP) to create the bronze casts. Finally, the pieces were painted and patinated.
They range in size and subject, including glasses, mobiles, lamps, a few portraits and would a Lichtenstein exhibit be complete without at least a couple explosions?
On piece, Coup de Chapeau, is an action-packed swoosh of energy in black, white, red and yellow. Near its apex, this untamed bolt of power has apparently encountered someone, resulting in an explosion rendered with red Ben-Day dots that has blown the poor fellow’s hat skyward.
“Look at that hat,” Blum said enthusiastically, as though encountering the piece for the first time. “It’s the most bizarre piece of sculpture. I mean why would anybody do that? It’s just completely silly. He had that element,” Blum said of his friend and business associate.
Dorothy Lichtenstein, meanwhile, expressed her preference for one of the exhibition’s least active and ornate pieces, Mobile IV, a rendering of a mobile balancing on a fulcrum, a tiny yellow sun on one end, counterbalanced by a larger red object on the other. She suggested the mobile pieces were inspired by the work of Alexander Calder, contemporary art’s undisputed mobile master.
“My favorite is maybe this,” she said pointing to the piece. “This very simple piece that’s kind of ‘that’s all?’” Added Blum: “How bizarre and how marvelous.”
While the works on display may be Lichtenstein’s most recognizable sculptures, Dorothy Lichtenstein noted that he created sculpture over the years as sort of an offshoot of his better-known painted work. “He always did sculpture, even in his pre-pop work he made various pieces…The sculpture usually related to whatever series of work he was working on,” she said. In fact, Lichtenstein exhibited three-dimensional works made of found objects as early as 1951 at the Carelbach Gallery in New York.
Dorothy Lichtenstein and Blum recounted their respective associations with Lichtenstein and with the pop art movement which exploded in New York then swept the art world within a matter of a few years in the early 1960s.
“In 61, 62 there was no such thing as pop, there was just work. There was Andy’s work. There was Roy’s work…. And in no time at all there were 200 pop artists. So it was extraordinary,” Blum said. “Within a few years, the art world kind of changed dramatically I think,” Dorothy Lichtenstein added.
Blum, who once bought an entire 32-piece set of Andy Warhol’s Campbell's Soup can paintings for $1,000, came to the scene through his association with the famed contemporary art dealer and gallerist Leo Castelli, whose stable of pop artists included not just Lichtenstein and Warhol, but also Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist and many others.
“I found Roy in 1961 at Leo’s gallery. Leo was a really great friend and a really great dealer and probably the man I looked up to in the most extraordinary way and I remember in the fondest way today. He did a great deal for me. He had a brilliant, brilliant gallery,” Blum said.
Dorothy Lichtenstein recalled meeting her future husband in 1964 when she was working at the former Bianchini Gallery on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which was launching an exhibition called The American Supermarket.
“We thought wouldn’t it be great if instead of a poster we could get Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein to do something on a shopping bag, and they both agreed. Everyone was very accessible; I mean artists were just happy not to have to have a day job to support themselves. I met Roy when he came into the gallery to sign those shopping bags,” she said.
Lichtenstein and Warhol maintained a respectful, though competitive, relationship through their parallel careers as pop art’s principal architects. Dorothy Lichtenstein recalled one incident involving some Warhol soup cans: “We had actual cans of Campbell’s Soup initialed by Andy and…someone stored them for us in the winter, another artist who was very poor and he had to eat the soup and he steamed all the labels off because they were initialed, and he saved them for us.”
Blum also had a soup can story or two to share, including one that took place at Warhol’s home on Lexington Avenue: “There were three soup cans on the floor and a picture of Marilyn Monroe torn out of a photo magazine pinned to the wall. And I looked at the three soup cans he made…and I said, ‘three soup can paintings, Andy, why three?’ He said, ‘I’m going to do 32.’ And sort of jokingly, I said ‘why Andy, why 32?’ And he said ‘there are 32 varieties, chili, beef noodle….’”
To go along with the celebration of what would have been Lichtenstein’s centennial, Gagosian also issued an illustrated catalogue that includes a conversation between Blum and Dorothy Lichtenstein along with a forward by Larry Gagosian and essays by art historian Daniel Belasco, New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik, and comedian Steve Martin.
Of the sculptures, Gopnik wrote: “these works are more optical than tactile—planar and pictorial, more than ‘haptic’ and three-dimensional, more like crystallized drawings than like full-bodied sculpture. They invite us to look through them, rather than to walk around them.”
Of Lichtenstein and Blum, Martin added: “Roy and Irving: A bad name for a ’60s folk duo, but a great name for a powerful art combo.”
Lichtenstein Remembered runs through October 21 at Gagosian, 980 Madison Avenue, New York. WM