Over the course of six prints, Roy Lichtenstein (American, 1923–1997) progressively simplifies and abstracts a Holstein cow, a sequence only comprehensible when the series is seen in its entirety. Lichtenstein directly quotes Picasso’s lithographic series The Bull (Le taureau), 1946, and Theo van Doesburg’s pencil studies for The Cow, 1916–1917, in which bovines are incrementally rendered abstract. These precedents testify to the modernist belief that universal truth could be revealed through distillation and abstraction. Lichtenstein, though, parodies this faith by calling into question the presumed distinction between “realistic” and “abstract” depictions. The stylized, wavy, black patterning in Bull I that calls to mind Old Master woodcuts or line engravings reverberates with the crisp, diagonal cross-hatching in the subsequent prints. This visual rhyme calls attention to the fact that, as Lichtenstein put it, “nothing is more abstract than anything else to me. The first one is abstract; they’re all abstract.”
Roy Lichtenstein, Bull Profile, 1973
Detail of Lichtenstein’s notebook showing a clipping from a magazine of Theo van Doesburg’s pencil studies for The Cow, 1916–1917, Estate of Roy Lichtenstein (click on detail for full image)
“The series pretends to be didactic; I’m giving you abstraction lessons. But nothing is more abstract than anything else to me. The first one is abstract; they're all abstract.”—Lichtenstein, 1973
Pablo Picasso, first, sixth, and eleventh states of the series The Bull (Le taureau), 1946, lithographs, each 32.4 x 44.2 cm (12 ¾ x 17 3/8 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington. © 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Taking guidance from a photograph in a 1970 cattle sales catalog, Lichtenstein based the prints in the Bull Profile series on drawings he made in New York and subsequently reworked at Gemini as preparatory collages. “I didn’t want to destroy the bull in doing it, you know, because whatever else I was doing, it had to look like a bull. I mean, all of the marks . . . are made for other reasons, but it can’t look unlike a bull, it would be inconsistent with the idea.” Lichtenstein’s interest in progressively abstracting a bovine further manifested in Bull Head Series, a three-lithograph series also made at Gemini in 1973. He revisited the subject again the following year in the three preparatory studies for the Cow Triptych (Cow Going Abstract) painting, which was produced as a tri-part poster in 1982.
View the slideshow below for images of Lichtenstein working at Gemini on his Bull Profile series.