Modern Head Roy Lichtenstein
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Roy Lichtenstein, born 1923 in New York City, first came to prominence owing to his comic book aesthetic. His visual style propelled him to the forefront of the Pop Art movement during the 1960s. Lichtenstein shifted his focus from appropriating commercial imagery already in the 1970s and began examining art historical genres instead.
The artist manufactured his Modern Head series entirely in the spirit of this new found referential mode of expression. The five part printed sequence abstracted stylistic conventions from various modern movements, like Cubism, Constructivism and Art Deco. In addition to a set of intricate Modern Head prints, Lichtenstein also created a limited number of Modern Head sculptures. These brass, wooden and steel structures came to be exhibited as public art pieces around the globe.
Lichtenstein’s Modern Heads sought to critically dismantle the history of modern art. To achieve this, the artist explored a formal idea that was of particular interest to him at the time; impure style. Lichtenstein’s Modern Heads proceeded by re-configuring decorative motifs borrowed from a variety of sources. Indeed, the Modern Heads are among a select few pieces in the artist’s oeuvre that don’t exclusively reference one specific artist or creative trend. Instead, the compositions conjoin diverse shapes adapted from facade ornamentations, interior design, sculptures and historical paintings.
More specifically, the prints blend patterns and forms abstracted from the streamlined industrial style of the 1930s, cubist portraits and drawings, and ancient Greece. In many respects, the Modern Head sequence is an evolution of the same profile. Departing from a multicoloured abstract head, the figure successively takes on a scaled back cubist approach. Continuing onto a refined art deco look, the head later hints at an angular constructivist influence. Finally, the succession concludes in an elegant figurative icon.
In the interest of a highly stylised and varied sequence, each Modern Head print was produced using a distinct commercial printing method. The artist showcases a flattened and obscured impression in three of the five prints, akin to an optical illusion. Tone and texture are signified by his characteristic primary colours, schematic forms, dotted areas and regularised stripes. Meanwhile, the remaining two works make use of layering techniques with superimposed finishes and neutral colour palettes. It is clear that a broad selection of manufacturing processes were utilised by the artist to underline the subject matter of the individual works.
Indeed, techniques employed in the series range from woodcut on fine printing paper to lithography and line-cut on a sturdier hand molded base. While one print utilises engraving on anodized aluminium to manifest a robotic aesthetic, another takes advantage of die-cut paper overlay on delicately embossed graphite. The varied use of materials and procedures result in disparate effects, demonstrating Lichtenstein’s skilled craftsmanship already at the dawn of his artistic career.
His Modern Heads of 1970 ultimately depict an interplay of dynamic and static forms. Every composition in the series balances vertical and diagonal lines against curves and straight geometrical edges. The prints portray a human figure as a machine, and vice versa. In essence, Lichtenstein’s Modern Heads introduce a vigorous and stimulating collection of prints that revise the many means of modern expression.
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