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Bulls

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Critical Review

In his graphic, semi-abstracted Bulls series, Lichtenstein draws primarily on Pablo Picasso’s lithographic series The Bull (Le taureau), from 1945-46. His first sequence of six prints was titled Bull Profile series, and the follow up three part sequence he named Bull Head series. Each print in both series expanded upon the composition of the one that came before. The gradual process of abstraction was notable only when the sequences were regarded in their entirety.

Lichtenstein would periodically return to the same compositional device over his career, see Cow Going Abstract (1974) and Tel Aviv Mural (1989) as examples. In 1989, Lichtenstein permitted the organization Artists to End Hunger, Inc. to reproduce his Bulls prints on a set of porcelain plates to benefit their campaign.

In his Bulls series, Lichtenstein draws primarily on Pablo Picasso’s lithographic series The Bull (Le taureau), from 1945-46, and Theo van Doesburg’s pencil studies for The Cow, from 1916-17. Both artists rendered bovines abstract, demonstrating the modernist belief that universal truth could exclusively be revealed through the distillation of forms.

Lichtenstein parodies this presumption in his Bulls series, by calling into question the alleged distinction between realistic and abstract depictions. He is interested in the transformation of the art form, rather than the transformation of the image itself. Studying 1970s cattle sales catalogues, he bases his imagery on photographs found in these registers, reworking them through drawings and preparatory collages.

The subject matter in the two Bulls series has no history, nor is it invested with personal symbolism. All prints represent a bull, but the manner of representation differs, mapping a progressive shift from figuration to abstraction. Both sequences aspire to playfully obscure the animal's naturalistic shape, until it is rendered indecipherable in a colourful arrangement of coded geometric shapes. In the final impression of both the Bull Profile series and Bull Head series, the bull’s particular anatomic qualities are reduced to pure essential forms.

Ultimately, the prints in this series exhibit an investigation of the process of simplification, without the implied search for a higher meaning. Lichtenstein enables an interactive dynamic between artist and beholder, wherein the spectators become active participants in reception as they follow along the sequences.