For today's blog, we invited Daniel Belasco to write about Roy Lichtenstein's painted bronze sculpture, Lamp I, 1977. Daniel Belasco is an art historian and Executive Director of the Al Held Foundation.
A little over two feet high, Lamp I could easily rest on a desk or bedside table. The work’s size and proportions situate it in the realm of the real, at one-to-one scale within the lifeworld of everyday America. Yet the piece is cast bronze, and the yellow beams of light are as rigid as bars of iron, genially tweaking the modernist dictum of “truth to materials.”
Though Roy Lichtenstein’s renown as an artist rests largely on his accomplishments as a painter—his iconic Pop paintings comfortably reside in the history of modernist figural art from Picasso to Murakami—Lichtenstein valued sculpture as arena in which to test his ideas about the flatness of perception. Existing in the same space as the viewer, sculpture is imbued with a palpable thingness lacking in the pictorial realm of painting.
Lichtenstein accepted this conceptual challenge and devised a rigorous process to arrest the dynamic movement of the material world into two-dimensional sculptural images. By rendering volume and depth in a system of pictorial contrasts in negative and positive space, he produced a formidable body of sui generis sculptures.
Ranging from ceramic dishes in the 1960s to monumental fabricated aluminum brushstrokes in the 1980s, these appealing works seem to be colorful figures from his paintings that somehow escaped the picture plane into actual space without compromising their formal integrity, like Gertie the Dinosaur coming to life in Winsor McCay’s animated vaudeville act.
In the mid 1970s Lichtenstein’s sculptural interests shifted to a new medium, bronze. He first intended to elaborate on the Entablature series of multimedia prints produced by Ken Tyler, which included cast bronze and pressed foil relief elements. The shadows of the architectural elements, easily suggested on paper using the conventions of shading and Ben-Day dots posed a conundrum: could they be translated into heavy metal?
Lichtenstein determined that it was technically impossible to represent a shadow three dimensionally without also including its correlated object, which would render the contours of the subject illegible. Undaunted in this quest to create sculpture of the transient, he seized upon images of transparent or luminous objects, where the graphic outline both provides the shape and serves as the structure of the sculpture.
“I realized that they should be made up almost entirely of objects that are reflective or that have steam or that somehow are ephemeral,” Lichtenstein said in a 1978 interview with art historian Ernst Busche.
This new body of work—brightly painted bronze sculptures of gleaming mirrors, colorful fishbowls, steaming teacups, and glowing lamps—achieved a humorously literal take on “drawing in space,” the formalist ideal which transfixed an older generation of American sculptors like David Smith.
Lamp I, 1977, is one of the first sculptures to emerge from these investigations. Light is rendered by varied shafts of bronze, painted black, white and yellow, collecting in a teardrop-shaped pool of light. With varied lengths, widths, and colors, the half dozen rays suggest the delicate and ever-changing play of light becoming material as it catches tiny motes in the air.
The cartoon-like pictorial imagery, derived from illustrations in a mass-produced catalogue, defies the gravitational power of three-dimensional thingness. The sculpture exists as much as an archetypical image fixed in the mind as a physical form that alters as one changes position and reorients one’s relationship to the work.
Lichtenstein seemed to savor the blatant irony of Lamp I, that light, without mass or volume, is rendered with such a weighty medium. Do these rays preserve or reiterate the light and heat of the foundry through their representational authority, or do they merely memorialize the metal as now solid and cold?
Lamp I evokes a host of other interpretations, such as light’s symbolic association with truth, and the German translation of the first syllable of Lichtenstein’s surname. Such representationalism and wordplay are rather banal, but these easily accessible connotations squarely fit Lichtenstein’s larger Pop project of a highly legible yet conceptually rich visual vocabulary. Lamp I perfectly complicates such impulses and revels in the seductiveness of its material, relational, and semantic absurdity.