Bulls Roy Lichtenstein
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Over the course of 1973, Roy Lichtenstein, born 1923 in New York, simplified the image of Holstein Friesian cattle in two related series of prints. 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.
The prints are graphically slick, using a combination of screenprint and lithography, with the addition of line cut, a process usually associated with commercial printing. The progression from naturalism to radical simplification is intimately associated with the lithographic process, which refines the image through repeated erasure and re-drawing. The commercial qualities of screen print allow Lichtenstein to add his own signature thick outlines, bold colours and Ben Day dots to the composition. Bull Head series utilises all three techniques systematically.
The first print in the Bull Profile series, however, is made solely by line-cut on paper and applies only black and white colouring. This technique was first and foremost utilised in newspaper prints of the past. Its simplicity calls to mind the surface finish of woodcuts or line engravings. The second one in the series adds colours and lithographic tools to the mix, while the remaining four editions introduce screenprint as a contributing procedure.
By accelerating his manufacturing methods throughout the Bulls series, Lichtenstein also maps another kind of the transformation; that of the history of printing techniques.
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