Exceptional Works: Roy Lichtenstein | David Zwirner
A grey header graphic with the following artwork information: Roy Lichtenstein Laocoön 1988 Oil and Magna on canvas 120 x 102 inches 304.8 x 259.1 cm.
A photograph of Roy Lichtenstein in his studio, dated 1986.

Roy Lichtenstein in his studio, 1986. Photo © Bob Adelman 

Roy Lichtenstein in his studio, 1986. Photo © Bob Adelman 

“There must be something about art.… Almost all cultures have done art. It’s a refining of the senses, which are there to keep us alive.”

—Roy Lichtenstein

A painting by Roy Lichtenstein, titled Laocoön, dated 1988.

Roy Lichtenstein

Laocoön, 1988
Oil and Magna on canvas
120 x 102 inches (304.8 x 259.1 cm)

This viewing room presents Laocoön (1988), an exceptional large-scale painting by Roy Lichtenstein. Acquired from the artist's estate by the present owner and seen in major international retrospectives of Lichtenstein’s work, Laocoön is one of four monumental paintings from the late 1980s that combine figure and landscape with expressive brushstrokes.

One of the most influential and innovative artists of the twentieth century, Roy Lichtenstein (1923–1997) produced an extensive body of instantly recognizable paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints, frequently rendered using his signature Ben-Day dots. Throughout his career, Lichtenstein made works that self-consciously reflected on art history, often translating recognizable modernist idioms into his distinctive pop aesthetic. Laocoön is a rare example of a work that directly references an artwork from antiquity.

An Installation view of Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective in Chicago Art Institute circa 2012

Installation view, Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, Chicago Art Institute, 2012

Installation view, Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, Chicago Art Institute, 2012

An Installation view of Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective in Tate Modern, London, circa 2013

Installation view, Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, Tate Modern, London, 2013

Installation view, Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, Tate Modern, London, 2013

An Installation view of Roy Lichtenstein: Beginning to End in Fundacíón Juan March, Madrid, circa 2007

Installation view, Roy Lichtenstein: Beginning to End, Fundacíón Juan March, Madrid, 2007

Installation view, Roy Lichtenstein: Beginning to End, Fundacíón Juan March, Madrid, 2007

Emerging in New York in 1962, Lichtenstein presented works that resisted the dominant style of painting at the time. Rejecting the inward-looking, contemplative nature of abstract expressionism, his early work was instead “concerned with the world,” taking inspiration from recognizable objects and images. Later, Lichtenstein satirized preceding art historical movements, breaking their stylistic language down into reproducible components.

A composite of paintings by Roy Lichtenstein, titled studies on paper for Laocoön, dated 1988

Roy Lichtenstein, studies on paper for Laocoön, 1988

Roy Lichtenstein, studies on paper for Laocoön, 1988

Laocoön is emblematic of a moment in the late 1980s when Lichtenstein developed a personal response to abstract expressionism, of which the prevailing motif is the gestural brushstroke. Lichtenstein appropriated this looser brushwork in his paintings of the period, focusing first on still lifes and landscapes, and then moving to the figure. Of the four large-scale paintings in this vein, Laocoön is the only one to reference a well-known classical subject: Laocoön and His Sons, the Roman copy of a Greek sculpture depicting the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons being killed by snakes.

A spread featuring Laocoön in the catalogue for Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, dated 1993

Laocoön featured in the catalogue for Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1993

Laocoön featured in the catalogue for Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1993

“After I started this work, I even went to see the sculpture in Rome, at the Vatican.”

—Roy Lichtenstein

 
A photograph of Roy Lichtenstein visiting the Laocoön at the Vatican, dated 1988

Roy Lichtenstein visiting the Laocoön at the Vatican, 1988

Roy Lichtenstein visiting the Laocoön at the Vatican, 1988

That Lichtenstein began this painting without ever even having seen the Laocoön firsthand is characteristic of his practice, which extolled the iconography of art history while satirizing its reproducibility. 

With his Laocoön, Lichtenstein reverses the pop art concept of elevating the everyday to the level of art by parsing an iconic sculpture with brushstrokes, obscuring at first glance the details and facial features of Laocoön and his children.

A detail of a painting by Roy Lichtenstein titled Laocoön, dated 1988

Roy Lichtenstein, Laocoön, 1988 (detail)

Roy Lichtenstein, Laocoön, 1988 (detail)

A detail of a painting by Roy Lichtenstein titled Laocoön, dated 1988

Roy Lichtenstein, Laocoön, 1988 (detail)

Roy Lichtenstein, Laocoön, 1988 (detail)

A detail of a painting by Roy Lichtenstein titled Laocoön, dated 1988.

Roy Lichtenstein, Laocoön, 1988 (detail)

Roy Lichtenstein, Laocoön, 1988 (detail)

A detail of a painting by Roy Lichtenstein titled Laocoön, dated 1988

Roy Lichtenstein, Laocoön, 1988 (detail)

Roy Lichtenstein, Laocoön, 1988 (detail)

While Lichtenstein occasionally explored other classical subjects and themes in his art, Laocoön represents his largest and most significant engagement with the art of antiquity.

Laocoön, of course, is a sculpture to begin with,” Lichtenstein explained. “It will become a brushstroke painting.… And it will become even more Rococo.… I like to take subjects that have a lot of baggage and that have been dealt with, so that the meaning is much fuller.… I knew that [Laocoön and His Sons] had a big history.”

A cover of a book, untiled Images of Dignity: The Drawings of Charles White, dated 1967

Roy Lichtenstein, Artemis and Acteon, 1987 (detail)

Roy Lichtenstein, Artemis and Acteon, 1987 (detail)

In re-creating the Laocoön not only as a painting but as one that calls attention to its medium through vividly articulated brushstrokes, Lichtenstein reawakens with a sense of humor the debate around medium specificity. His Laocoön is a painting about painting that is also about sculpture, conflating artistic styles, mediums, and history in a single work.

“In these later paintings the ironies are piled high. Laocoön (1988), Mr. Lichtenstein’s immense tour-de-force riff on the eponymous ancient sculpture, is both a parody and a demonstration of de Kooningesque Abstract Expressionism.”

—Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times

An installation view of the work titled Laocoön by Roy Lichtenstein, dated 1988.
 
 

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