This print by the American artist Roy Lichtenstein depicts a structure resembling a totem pole that features square eyes, a cross-shaped nose and a toothy, downturned mouth cut into wood. Hair-like threads protrude from along the left side of the totem and a rope, which is severed at the bottom, weaves in and out of the pole’s jagged right edge. Part of a further cut in the wood can be seen at the bottom of the image and the section of another thread is visible at the top left, creating the impression that the totem continues outside the pictorial frame. The print’s palette is limited to saturated reddish-brown, yellow and black pigments, with its white paper constituting the rest of the image. The artist has created a sense of spatial recession in the work by weaving the rope in and out of the totem’s zig-zagged right edge and has also indicated the depth of the wood carvings by adding dark shading along the insides of their cut-out areas. This is a bold, striking image in its stark forms and palette, an effect that is enhanced by the fierce expression on the totem’s face.
Lichtenstein created American Indian Theme IV in 1980, when he was working between Manhattan and Southampton, both in New York. The print is a woodcut combined with a lithograph on white paper and it was printed in New York by Tyler Graphics, although the size of the edition is not known. The artist has signed and dated the print in the bottom-right corner, and this inscription also indicates that this print is an artist’s proof, possibly number sixteen.
American Indian Theme IV is the fourth in a series of six prints made in 1979–80 that are rooted in Lichtenstein’s appreciation of Native American art. They were partly stimulated by his experiences in Southampton during the late 1970s when he and his wife resided near a Shinnecock Indian reservation. Combining loose references to indigenous artefacts such as totem poles with a visual style inspired by contemporary printed material, these works bring together two otherwise disparate facets of American culture. Additional source material may also have come from the collections of artist friends of Lichtenstein, such as Jasper Johns, Frank Stella and Donald Judd, all of whom were known to have acquired Native American blankets for use in their work (see Hendrickson 1988, p.90). Around the time that this print was created, Lichtenstein was working with new combinations of motifs in a way he had not attempted before. As the art historian and curator Janis Hendrickson has argued:
In the seventies and eighties Lichtenstein began to loosen, reorganise and expand what he had done up until that point. His quotations of art sometimes combined elements of only his own works, while in other paintings he started to mix various artists’ images and styles together, changing them according to his own fantasy.
(Hendrickson 1988, p.85.)
The artist Richard Kalina further observes that the powerfully graphic nature of Native American art most likely appealed to Lichtenstein due to its visual similarity to his own style at this time (see Kalina 2006, p.146).
The series to which this print belongs represents Lichtenstein’s second period of engagement with Native American culture. In the 1950s he had made a series of pre-pop art, cubist-inspired works which directly explored aspects of Native American. More contemporary with American Indian Theme IV is Amerind Figure 1981 (private collection), a bronze sculpture reminiscent of a totem pole that represents Lichtenstein’s continuation of this theme in his sculptural work. Amerind Landscape 1979 (private collection), a wool tapestry incorporating Native American motifs, provides a further example of the artist’s work on this subject, and the body of work that includes these objects, produced between 1979 and 1981, has become known as Lichtenstein’s ‘Amerindian’ series – a conflation of the words ‘American’ and ‘Indian’ (see Stavitsky and Johnson 2005, p.7).
Lichtenstein’s works on Native American themes – both from the 1950s and the late 1970s and early 1980s – have been little discussed in the literature on his career, which instead has viewed prints such as this one as another manifestation of his surrealist adaptations of art-historical sources in the 1970s. However, in 2005–6 the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey held an exhibition dedicated to Lichtenstein’s paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures exploring Native American motifs, which was well received and led to a broader understanding of this lesser-known aspect of his practice (see Stavitsky and Johnson 2005).
Janis Hendrickson, Roy Lichtenstein, Cologne 1988.
Gail Stavitsky and Twig Johnson, Roy Lichtenstein: American Indian Encounters, exhibition catalogue, Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey 2005, p.28.
Richard Kalina, ‘Lichtenstein’s Indian Territory’, Art in America, vol.94, no.4, April 2006, pp.142–7, http://www.richardkalina.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/Lichtenstein_April_2006.pdf, accessed 12 May 2015.
Supported by Christie’s.